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France steers EU attention to Greece-Turkey standoff in East Med

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French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a strong position in support of the rights of Greece and Cyprus, calling on Turkey to stop unilateral actions and enter into negotiations.

“President Macron spoke on behalf of the MED7 confirming strong support to Greece and Cyprus against Turkish provocations,” Charles Ellinas, a senior fellow at the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council, told New Europe on September 11.

Macron hosted an emergency EuroMed 7 summit on September 10 with the leaders of Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Cyprus in Corsica amid fears of open conflict as Ankara seeks to expand its energy resources and influence in the eastern Mediterranean. The informal group of European Mediterranean states, which often called “Club Med”, first came together in 2016.

Constantinos Filis, director of research at Institute of International Relations, told New Europe by phone on September 11 the agenda of the summit was on Turkey, Libya and other regional challenges. “Mainly MED7, at least for now, has to do with Turkey and how Turkey is considered at least by Greece, France and Cyprus to be a challenge, if not a threat, for their interests and especially regional stability. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t seem that there is a consensus even in this MED7 group as to how to deal with Turkey,” Filis said, explaining that it seems Spain, Italy and to a lesser extent Malta due to their economic exposure to Turkey, especially in the banking sector, they think twice whether they should develop a more determined position towards Turkey. “For now, the priority is how to deal with Turkey, how to stem Turkish aggression, how to find way to stabilise the situation rather than talk about hydrocarbons,” he said.

Regarding Turkey putting out a naval alert – known as a Navtex – that it was planning to carry out a seismic survey in waters close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo, a short distance from the coast of southwest Turkey, Filis argued that it’s not about hydrocarbons per se. “It’s more of an issue of Turkey showing its flag and Turkey violating the Law of the Sea. I honestly don’t think that Turkey is conducting seismic surveys because it wants to explore the hydrocarbons on the area. It’s conducting seismic surveys because it wants to show to all other regional states that it is the hegemony of the region and they should regard it as a hegemonic power,” he said. “Turkey through its seismic surveys in the southern part of Kastellorizo and three consecutive Navtexs that it has issued – and will probably issue a fourth one tomorrow – wants to punish Greece for its agreement with Egypt and wants to show anyone else that it’s a power that has to be respected and Greece has to be punished for ignoring Turkey’s interests,” Filis added.

Ellinas agreed, noting the probability of hydrocarbon presence in the area of dispute between Greece and Turkey is not high. “Hydrocarbons is the pretext of Turkey’s actions in this area, rather than the cause. So, the MED7 summit does not directly impact exploration in the East Med,” he said.

He explained that the areas where hydrocarbons exploration was taking place before COVID-19, south of Cyprus and offshore Egypt are not directly affected by Turkey’s more recent aggressive actions. In any case, given the dire state of the oil and gas industry, the oil companies are not ready to resume exploration or development offshore Cyprus for some time yet, Ellinas said.

Asked if there is a danger of a more serious standoff in the East Med, Ellinas said, “There is always such danger, especially given the unpredictability of President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan”. But he noted that these problems have now attracted global attention, not just from Europe, but also the United States, NATO and everybody else. “There is considerable pressure and effort, including from NATO, to steer Turkey and Greece from conflict and I believe they will achieve it,” Ellinas. In addition, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been very careful to robustly defend Greek interests, but not to allow Greece to be drawn into hot incidents, Ellinas said. “As a result, the risk of serious standoff is largely being contained,” he said.

Filis argued that maybe Turkey wants to raise tensions in order to impose its terms on the agenda while the international community will be looking how to avoid or to diffuse possible tension. He did not rule out a small-scale military conflict between Turkey and Greece. “Maybe if Greece sees that the next Navtex plans to have Turkish ships entering into Greek territorial waters or even potential territorial waters because we delimited our territorial waters to six nautical miles but we can do it to 12 nautical miles unilaterally. So, if Turkey tries to cross this very red line of 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, I presume that Greece will try to block this area instead of letting Turkey bloc the area around Castellorizo,” Filis said, noting that what Turkey has been doing is trying to block the area around Castellorizo. “The blockade means it would like to prevent Greece from exercising its sovereign rights or even its sovereignty with regards to Castellorizo and to show that Castellorizo is a unique case and Catellorizo is disconnected from the rest of Greece’s islands,” he said.

Filis noted that the timing is better for MED7 simply because the EU has not been in a position to fill in the gap left by the US and it’s possible the French are looking for ways to fill in part of this gap because they feel that if this gap is not filled by the EU or some other formation within the EU then it will be Turkey and Russia that will try to fill it in. “And that based on the French assumption is detrimental to the European Union. So, we might not have a united European front towards Russia or towards Turkey and we have Germany, which is more focused on the Eastern periphery that is the Baltic States, former Warsaw-pact countries and Russia, whereas the French since they are a Mediterranean country, they focus on the Mediterranean,” Filis said, noting that Paris wants to turn the attention of the EU towards the Mediterranean. “If they do not succeed, probably they will use this MED7 as a vehicle to further engage at least part of the European Union in regional developments, which are not only Greek-Turkish relations, they are Libya, migration, terrorism, energy, there are more issues and challenges around,” he said.

According to Ellinas, the EU should act in unison. “At present it is divided in the way it is handling the East Med problems and Turkey has been quite adept in exploiting these divisions. At the end, though, these problems can be resolved only through negotiations and the whole of the EU must act in that direction,” he said, adding, “Both Greece and Turkey confirmed readiness to negotiate. Between France taking a robust view and Germany determination to mediate, with US support, there should be a way to create the right conditions for negotiations”.

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Co-founder / Director of Energy & Climate Policy and Security at NE Global Media

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