Is Erdogan interested in a deal with Europe?

EU's attempts this week to reach a settlement with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean are riddled with complications

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It is a big week for diplomacy around the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, with a clear risk that the region faces an inexorable rise in tensions. The European Council President Charles Michel is due to fly to Greece, Cyprus and Malta, as well as hold a scheduled negotiation with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by telephone.

Greece has appealed for support from its fellow Europeans as it faces Turkish encroachment into its territorial waters around the Mediterranean basin. Cyprus has seen a Turkish exploration flotilla linger in its waters for weeks. France has sent war planes to patrol the area. The Pentagon ordered US military exercises in the area as a show of involvement and, presumably, a caution against further escalation.

How far Mr Michel gets in his mediation is open to question.

Turkish officials accuse the EU of not being impartial in the process. This is not an entirely straightforward accusation, as Turkey is challenging the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), a convention accepted by 167 countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems determined to get his way on the Eastern Mediterranean situation. AFP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems determined to get his way on the Eastern Mediterranean situation. AFP

When it signed a joint maritime agreement with Tripoli’s Government of National Accord, Mr Erdogan’s government was attempting to override the geography of not only the Dodecanese islands but also Crete, the largest island in Greece – and thus the whole seabed in the eastern half of the sea.

Mr Erdogan appears bent on reversing what he views as an unequal treaty signed in Sevres, France in 1920 as Turkey emerged from the ashes of the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

It is important to remember Mr Erdogan has a wider agenda. His government subscribes ever more closely to the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology. The Turkish state has also immersed itself far deeper in Arab affairs and the destiny of the Arab states than ever in its near century history.

Moreover, in search of allies Mr Erdogan’s government has backed revisionist foreign policies – something that seems to have contributed to its readiness to now go up against Europe in the Mediterranean.

The deadline for the current round of diplomacy is September 23, when the EU's foreign ministers are due to discuss what measures to take against Turkey.

The portents for Mr Erdogan are not good. At a caucus meeting last week of the "Med7 states" – those in the EU with shores on the Mediterranean – a statement said countries must comply with Unclos and resolve differences through dialogue.

The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called for the Europeans to adopt a quick, sharp shock strategy when it puts together its sanctions measures. Turkey's complaint is that it is being shut out of the hydro-carbon riches of the sea – huge natural gas basins have been discovered in recent decades – and that its coastline is unfairly hemmed in by Greek waters.

Taking matters in its own hands threatens to unravel the stability of a massive swathe of the world. Ankara took advantage of Libya’s instability to set up a one-side arrangement with Tripoli.

In a paper last week, the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) dissected what is at stake, as the pressure builds and how outside powers are being sucked into the crisis. It pointed out that Cyprus was also a great prize in the whole struggle. An end game could see a switch-back attempt to create a new framework to deal with the island in two separate parts.

FILE PHOTO: European Council President Charles Michel gives a news conference after a meeting of EU government leaders in Brussels, Belgium, August 19, 2020.  Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
European Council President Charles Michel will lead the EU's diplomatic efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean. Reuters

Even the suggestion that Britain could play a role in the unfolding crisis is tantalising. It has managed to leave the European Union while retaining sovereign military base territory on Cyprus. Tilting its hand in favour of Turkey would be fraught with risk for all concerned. However, the footprint it retains in the Eastern Mediterranean adds to the intrigue in the pipeline.

On the other side of the coin, there is increasing talk of an expanding Greece's military budget and speculation over a potential purchase of French Rafale fighter jets. Having long been a client of the German armaments industry, a shift by Athens to Paris would signal a change in priorities from the economic relationship to military and strategic concerns.

Thus the conditions exist for a revamped focus on Europe’s “strategic south”. This would set up different powers, France, Britain and Germany, and see the capitals jockeying with separate agendas. That prospect would add fuel to the fire of the divisions already ripping the power balance in Europe to shreds.

Watch out for a historic turning point when the European sanctions on Turkey do come. It is increasingly unlikely that London will match its counterparts. The Brexit split will be for the first time made real in the field of international sanctions.

Other Europeans remain preoccupied by President Erdogan's ability to push hundreds of thousands of migrants across the sea and land borders in to Europe. In fact he has already shown his hand. In February and March, the Greek border was flooded with a sudden influx of desperate people who had been brought by people smugglers within Turkey to the province of Edirne and virtually pushed across the 200-kilometre frontier.

The stakes for Mr Michel and the diplomats have never been higher. Unfortunately, the prize for Mr Erdogan is no longer a settlement and quiet life with Europeans gently sustaining his government.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National