With European Union leaders meeting in Brussels next week to determine, after months of uncertainty, how to address Turkey’s posturing in the eastern Mediterranean, what may be more impactful than any EU sanctions is the extent to which European countries encourage the fledgling NATO-brokered talks between Turkey and Greece.
Turkey has in the past 18 months repeatedly sent ships to survey for natural gas in waters claimed by the Republic of Cyprus, and last December signed a maritime agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that essentially ignored the sizable Greek island of Crete. Greece recently signed a similar deal with Egypt.
Greece and Turkey, both NATO allies and historic rivals, have appeared on the brink of war since early August when Turkey sent a drillship, escorted by naval vessels, near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, about a mile off the Turkish coast. In response, Athens placed its military on high alert and dispatched troops to the island.
Despite sharp disagreements over airspace, sovereignty and maritime claims in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, Turkish and Greek officials met at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week to initiate a dialogue, and on Tuesday confirmed they were ready to begin exploratory talks.
The EU has been debating sanctions against Turkey for months, with a France-led side in favour and a Germany-led bloc preferring to work to bring Turkey to the negotiating table. “This is a high-voltage political problem that the European Council will have to solve,” EU foreign affairs chief Joseph Borrell said this week.
On Tuesday, the EU placed sanctions on three transport firms for violating the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, including the Turkish company that operates a vessel at the centre of a naval standoff between Turkey and France in June.
Muzaffer Şenel, a political science professor at Istanbul Sehir University, said that instead of debating sanctions, the EU should focus on encouraging further progress toward meaningful talks.
“The EU is losing its credibility in the eyes of Turkey, of being an honest broker,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “If the EU wants to be a more credible actor, they should take care of the NATO initiative of Turkish-Greek negotiations.”
Top European officials appeared to do precisely that on Tuesday, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Union Council President Charles Michel spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling for the diplomatic momentum to be protected and tensions reduced. Also on Tuesday, the European Council postponed its summit initially planned for this week to Oct. 1-2 after Michel said he came into contact with an official who tested positive for COVID-19.
These developments came a day after Cyprus linked a seemingly unrelated foreign policy issue to the Turkey-Greece crisis, blocking EU sanctions on Belarus for that government’s harsh crackdown on protests. Nicosia argues that Turkey is drilling in the exclusive economic zone of an EU member state, yet the bloc seems to care less about the violation of Greek Cypriot sovereignty than it does about non-EU citizens in Belarus.
This may be a logical argument, but Şenel thinks Cyprus pushed the conversation off the main issue.
“The Belarusian issue is different than the Turkish one,” he said. “Belarus is about democracy & the Turkish side is overlapping (maritime) claims, Turkey and Greece and Greek Cypriots.”
Because of several Greek islands’ proximity to the Turkish coast, Greece’s continental shelf, as per international law, could extend nearly all the way to Turkey, leaving Ankara with near-zero territorial waters. To counterbalance this reality, Turkey signed the maritime deal with the GNA and has pushed to assert its claims and project military might in the eastern Mediterranean.
Many observers and European officials tend to view Ankara’s maritime actions, which are seen as illegal by Greece and Cyprus, through the lens of Erdoğan’s increasing domestic violations of the rule of law. Şenel pointed out that the two are largely unrelated.
“Turkey is now living under an undemocratic authority, this is true,” he said. “But this does not mean Turkey has no right to defend its sovereign rights over maritime zones.”
European leaders may have begun to appreciate this. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who has repeatedly denounced Turkish actions in recent months and called for strong sanctions, spoke with Erdoğan on Tuesday, hinting at broader momentum toward talks.
Şenel felt the NATO alliance was best placed to find common ground between member states Turkey and Greece.
“Both sides are taking a maximalist approach and they should find a solution under the auspices of NATO,” said Şenel, who felt confident the current talks would lead to a limited agreement, calming Turkey-Greek tensions.
“The most important thing is that the negotiations are under NATO,” he added. “This is the only institution where Turkey has a strong voice in the West.”