Dangerous games in the eastern Mediterranean
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s choice to use the words “honest broker and the EU” in the same sentence during a July 7 press conference with Josep Borrell, the 27-nation bloc’s high representative, represented a clear break with Turkey’s decades-old policies.
Emphasizing that Turkey was open to dialogue, Çavuşoğlu suggested that that the European Union could act as an honest broker in resolving the eastern Mediterranean standoff. Çavuşoğlu argued that the EU could play a role in finding a way to share the revenues from the natural resources around the divided island of Cyprus that would also guarantee the rights of Turkish Cypriots.
Ever since Greek Cyprus joined, the European Union has been a biased institution for Turkey. The union’s mediation efforts in Cyprus were always rebuffed by Turkey, and the bloc was only accepted as an observer in multilateral peace talks spearheaded by the United Nations.
Turkey’s U-turn on the European Union on issues relating to Cyprus should have been read as a goodwill gesture. And when Germany stepped in to ease the tension involving another EU member, Greece, Turkey again responded by suspending drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean to give a chance to diplomatic talks that would also address Turkish-Greek disagreements over maritime issues in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
At present, Germany is not only mediating among Greece, Greek Cyprus and Turkey, but has also assumed a similar role within the European Union. This is not just because it has taken up the presidency of the 27-nation bloc, but also because of its political clout among member countries.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s job is rendered more difficult due to France’s stance against Turkey. Merkel and her French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, have openly confessed that they disagree on how to approach Turkey. France is clearly disturbed by the fact that its policies in Syria and Libya have hit the wall because of Turkey. It is also irritated by Turkish activities toward Muslim communities in France.
By supporting Greece and trying to mobilize support within the European Union, Macron seems to want to deal a lesson to Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.
France is participating in military exercise that are running between Aug. 26 and 28 together with Greece, Greek Cyprus and Italy in the eastern Mediterranean. It will also push for EU sanctions during an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers on Aug. 27.
So far, Macron does not seem to have received the full support of other Mediterranean countries like Italy and Spain. Rome, for one, is playing a double game. Italian energy giant ENI has stakes in the region’s natural resources, but with the drop in oil and natural gas prices and economic difficulties aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, Italy’s current economic relations with Turkey might outweigh any future potential gains from the eastern Mediterranean.
While Italy can appear to support Greece by joining the military exercise, it is making overtures to Turkey by objecting to EU sanctions. Italy’s interests in Libya clash with that of France as they support opposite warring sides in the country. In addition, it may also be wary of Macron’s ambition to take the role of EU leader after Merkel’s departure from politics next year. This is also a concern for Spain, whose economic ties with Turkey render it less supportive of Macron’s aggressive stance.
Merkel, on the other hand, is criticized by some in Europe for appeasing what they see as an increasingly authoritarian regime and, therefore, compromising the European Union’s democratic values.
But the German chancellor, who, in contrast to Macron, has 15 years of familiarity of dealing with Turkey, has an accumulated knowledge of the reflexes of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in times of crisis. Her experience of tension with Turkey dictates a stance that involves a mixed policy featuring a visible carrot and a veiled stick. On bilateral crises, she has never entered into an open confrontation or war of words with Erdoğan despite the latter’s open verbal attacks that touch on very sensitive nerves in German society, such as accusations of modern-day Nazism. That was partly because she did not aim to win public approval through a populist policy of directly targeting a leader disliked by her voters and partly because she knew German national interests would be better served by avoiding openly humiliating a government that would benefit from an embarrassing situation, regardless of form, to consolidate its voter base.
By now it has become obvious to many European leaders – apart from Macron – that Erdoğan feeds on an anti-Western stance. Macron seem to think that an open confrontation between Turkey and Europe, which could have unpleasant outcomes, might cost Ankara its domestic support.
But the statement from Erdoğan on Aug. 26, the day the four-country military exercise started, that Turkey is ready to pay whatever cost in the current crisis is not empty rhetoric, as he will not capitulate but rather seek to capitalize on any hot confrontation with European countries, uniting even the opposition behind him.