Tensions Brewing Over EU’s Eastern Mediterranean Neighbourhood

13 July, 2020

Conflict on the Horizon

There is a conflict brewing over the Eastern Mediterranean with a potential to escalate beyond the diplomatic battlefield. The issue at hand involves the Libya – Turkey maritime boundary treaty between the Turkish government and Libya’s UN recognised Government of National Accord, which has officially been referred to the United Nations for approval. The treaty, a first of its kind, is officially known as the “Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Republic of Turkey and the Government of National Accord – State of Libya on delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean” and creates an ‘exclusive economic zone’ (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea, entailing that both countries can claim rights to resources laying on the ocean bed. The treaty reflects Turkey’s efforts to secure its geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean, while also promising support for Libya’s Tripoli-based UN-backed government from the warlord Khalifa Haftar and the foreign states who back him.

While the conflict at hand may not be obvious, it is significant, and could result in an “energy showdown” between Turkey and its Mediterranean EU-member neighbours. The deal would prevent Israel, Greece, the Republic of Cyprus and Egypt from realising “The Energy Triangle”, a natural gas extraction plan, through a pipeline that passes through Cyprus’ EEZ that is not recognised by Turkey (as it has not signed the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea). The deal would cut Turkey out of a share from the resource-rich Eastern Mediterranean, where it enjoys around 1577km coastline known as the Turquoise Coast. The treaty ultimately establishes a 18.6 nautical mile (nm) maritime boundary between Libya and Turkey restricting the EEZs of large islands like Crete and Rhodes, as well as restricting Cyprus to maritime entitlements of 12nm territorial sea. Turkey, quick to act, also launched its own explorations in the region mainly through the Yavuz drill ship, as part of its “Blue Homeland” doctrine that is designed to defend Turkey’s off-shore rights.

Previously, Greece, Egypt, Israel and the Republic of Cyprus signed maritime agreements, discussed EEZs and “The Energy Triangle” while excluding Turkey, an arguably key player in the region, from discussions. Moreover, Greece, Israel and the Republic of Cyprus established a consortium through which the EastMed pipeline project (signed on 2 January 2020) emerged, which aims to transport newly discovered gas reserves from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. This exclusion reflects the increasingly difficult relationship between Turkey and its regional neighbours such as with Israel over the “Flotilla” incident and Turkey’s support and pro-Palestine rhetoric, with Egypt over Turkey’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, and with Cyprus over the territorial partition since 1974 as well as the increasingly strained and transactional relationship between Turkey and the EU.

All of this is a part of a larger movement in shifting regional relations in the eastern Mediterranean. Interests by different nations around the gas resources in the region also sparked interest from Jordan, Italy and Palestine amongst the aforementioned countries. This eventually led to the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in January 2019. Turkey’s absence from this group, despite its large domestic market and large maritime and geographic presence is also noticeable, and regrettable. The omission of Turkey also largely defines the position of EMGF, signalling itself as an anti-Turkey cooperation, as evidenced by its remit to expand its regional security cooperation and conduct joint military drills around Cyprus.

The latest treaty between Turkey and Libya, however, already had some repercussions. Upon the agreement, Cyprus and Greece signalled support to Khalifa Haftar, joining France, and lately Italy, amongst European nations to do so. It is therefore clear that there is a giant soup of conflict cooking in the region, that spills beyond the Cyprus and Syrian crisis and into Libya. For the EU, this level of regional political and security instability is bad news. The question is whether the bloc will find enough political will to turn down the fire.

A Historic Issue

As much as it is a geopolitical issue, the roots of this escalation can be traced back to the Cyprus dispute, an issue in which the EU also has had a hand. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided into two administrations, the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government and the Turkish Cypriot government only recognised by Turkey. The conflict emerged after the 1974 Turkish intervention which came as a response to a Greek Cypriot military coup against the then-internationally recognised government of Cyprus. In 2004, Greek Cypriots rejected reunification with Turkish Cypriots after the 2004 referendum, conducted as part of the Annan plan, led by the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Upon the referendum results, the EU accepted the Greek Cypriot administration as representative of the entire island, which marks as a breaking point in Turkish – EU relations. This is why any territorial or geopolitical issue that emerges regarding Cyprus has significant potential to further worsen the EUs relationship with Turkey, which also holds NATO’s second largest army.

Since the pipeline is planned to pass through disputed waters around Cyprus, and since Turkey believes that the Greek Cypriot administration of the Republic of Cyprus does not adequately represent all of the inhabitants of the island, Turkey has vowed to retaliate against any unilateral Greek Cypriot exploration in the area. The deal between Turkey and the Tripoli-based government can be seen as the next step into escalation, with Greece having expelled the Libyan ambassador from Athens over the deal. Nonetheless, the deal can also be perceived as a final call, a last opportunity, to bring Turkey into discussions. For the Republic of Cyprus, the chances of this happening are slim, given the backdrop of other agreements and treaties such as the hydrocarbon exploration right agreements with Italian and French companies.

Source: Geopolitical Futures

What is the EU Response? 

The EU has remained largely divided on its Eastern Mediterranean policy. Although the union will certainly hold onto its principles and support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of its members Cyprus and Greece, it also is in need of stabilising conflicts in its neighbourhood to manage the refugee issue for which its domestic audience pressurises. As Turkey is one of the main partners in handling the refugee crisis, the EU finds itself in a complex situation regarding its foreign affairs. Nonetheless, the country issued fresh sanctions on Turkey in early 2020 in response to Turkey’s drilling expeditions. Additionally, the pre-accession financial assistance to Turkey for 2020 was reduced by €145.8 million and further negotiations on aviation agreements were also ceased. The EU also encouraged the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey. Instead of repelling Turkey from continuing its drilling activities however, the EUs actions have provoked Ankara, who responded by increasing its hydrocarbon exploration efforts in the eastern Mediterranean.

More recently, Cyprus, France and Greece, all supporters of Haftar in Libya, further joined Egypt and the UAE in a declaration urging “Turkey to fully respect the sovereignty and sovereign rights of all states in their maritime zones in the eastern Mediterranean”. No steps towards de-scalation is to be expected from any of these reactions, as such coalitions and co-operations against Turkey strengthen Turkey’s view that it is increasingly under the siege of anti-Turkey powers and influences. Although, the EU will continue its policy of non-recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) as a respect towards Republic of Cyprus’ sovereignty, it must recognise, and act according to the reality, that the exclusionary events and attitudes towards Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean will boil old disputes like Cyprus, as well as further escalate the crisis in Libya. Regarding the EastMed pipeline itself, an EU spokesperson was reported to say, “Diversification of gas supplies is important for the EU’s energy security, and gas supplies from the Eastern Mediterranean contribute to this. In this context, the EastMed pipeline is one option to bring that gas to the continent,”. EUs concerns to diversify its natural gas and energy sources since the 2014 invasion of Crimea by Russia is valid, yet the EU must aim to support projects that do not add further instability to the Middle East. Supporting exclusionary projects is therefore not the path to achieve that.

As the eastern Mediterranean gas exploration issue, linked with the Cyprus dispute spills over into Libya, the EU will face the risk of having further destabilisation in its backyard and potentially a heavy blow to its already deteriorating relationship with Turkey. Therefore, although the EastMed pipeline and gas explorations in the region could assist in stabilising the region through energy cooperation, it could also further push Turkey to, a key regional player, to turn its back onto the EU and walk into the arms of Russia. This is already notable through the Russian-Turkish cooperation on TurkStream gas pipeline that runs through the Black Sea, as well as the purchase of S-400 air defence systems. The memorandum of understanding with the government in Tripoli however is likely to halt this relationship, as Russia supports the warlord Haftar’s, the opposition efforts in the country. This could therefore be a chance for Europe to breathe life back into the strained relationship, if the EU finds enough political will to do so.

Turkey’s Action Points

As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Therefore, Turkey must also do its part and reach out and accept invitations for discussions. These talks will certainly require Turkey to reduce its drilling activity with which it must comply in order to reach any agreement. However, without any concessions, understandings and incentives provided by the EU and EMGF’s side, conflict will likely not de-escalate. Otherwise, the conflict will likely turn into a “zero-sum and dangerous positioning, while dispelling the impression that Europe has ganged up on Turkey in a common cause with Arab states”.

Concessions on the Turkish side may further include domestic issues such as improving human rights in the country, perhaps through better compliance with European Court of Human Rights rulings, as suggested by EDAM’s Sinan Ülgen, as well as respecting the independence of the justice system.

EU’s Action Points

The EU – Turkey relationship have seen better days. In order to protect and advance its energy and migration interests, the EU must recognise that its current strategy of using the ‘stick’ of sanctions is not working, especially when there are no more ‘carrots’ enticing membership to accompany it.

First, regarding the Cyprus dispute, both sides are aware that there will not be an overnight cure. But the EU can certainly do more to mediate the escalating tensions around the dispute, and play a more central role as a mediator. The EU will not approach a two-state solution, and will support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its fellow EU member, Cyprus at all cost.  However, it might draw attention to the fair distribution of resources and goods to all the inhabitants of the island, including the Turkish Cypriots, on the basis of human rights. The Turkish Cypriot citizens can indeed be represented without recognition of the government, especially since the EU has already viewed their elected leaders as interlocutors. This is a fundamental clog to the relations, as the strain in the Turkish – EU relations can be said to be truly born with the accession of the Republic of Cyprus into the bloc. Thereafter, the Turkish membership talks have repeatedly been threatened and blocked by Cyprus. For Turkey, it is therefore clear that the EU, with Cyprus blocking its path, is not going to be able to feasibly open any of the chapters necessary to close for ascension. Given that membership is now visibly not on the horizon, the EU no longer has an important leverage over its negotiations with Turkey. Therefore, the Cyprus dispute must really be seen as the heart of the EU – Turkey relationship crisis.

Second, Turkey’s ‘siege mentality’ must be broken through trust and confidence-building initiatives involving the EU and other regional members. One can easily recognise that this is not simply a ‘perceived’ threat but a rather disturbing scenario to Turkey’s security interests. Given that the country is at odds with Russia, UAE, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, Turkey is increasingly surrounded by countries that have had souring relationships with it. In order to build this trust, the EU, which is seen by Turkey as increasingly anti-Turkey, must insist on increased participation in agreements and deals around the eastern Mediterranean, including with the arguably anti-Turkey EMGF. Furthermore, the EU must internally encourage European countries, as well as the UAE and Russia, from backing Haftar to refrain from providing further support, as the country continuously slips into a proxy war. Making open statements towards other countries escalating the conflict in Libya will prove that Turkey is not being singled out, and that the EU can have some impartiality. Further discussions, mediated and/or initiated by the EU, on the eastern Mediterranean must therefore include Turkey at the table too. Another trust-building approach would be to resume discussions on updating the Turkey – EU customs union, as well as reviewing the non-visa travel for Turkish citizens in the EU as part of the migration deal.

Once some trust is restored, the bloc can champion diplomatic activities over military activities. For instance, Ülgen further suggests that the EU should appoint a special representative for the eastern Mediterranean who would primarily work on the problem of sharing off-shore resources. This kind of high-level focus is indeed sorely needed, and would scale down the multi-level crisis to one level, and separate its efforts to deal with sources of tension in the region into manageable chunks. Engaging in more diplomacy is an urgent matter, as with each military response from Erdogan, the anti-Turkey cooperation in the region grows.

Ultimately, lingering historic problems as well as escalating tensions need to be dealt with through high-skilled and urgent diplomatic and trust-building efforts. The EU, as the most important regional player, must ensure that the exclusivity of Turkey does not result in isolating and aggravating Turkey further. Focusing on mutual security and migration interests would be a solid starting ground. Moreover, the EU needs to increase its efforts to prevent a proxy war in Libya, particularly by engaging more with the EU countries who are already involved. There will have to be multiple avenues of discussions that prevent greater regional instability, so that the alliances in the eastern Mediterranean as well as the relationship between Turkey – EU evolve to become more constructive and inclusive. One of them can certainly include a possible accession of Turkey – not into the EU – but into the EMFG. Mutual economic and geopolitical commitments born from such a step could contribute to easing the tensions.

Given the potential for instability in the eastern Mediterranean to affect core EU interests– migration, counter-terrorism, energy security, sovereignty, and more – as well as result in more humanitarian crises, European states and the EU must revert from its current course and should make sincere attempts to regain Turkey as an ally.

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