In a world of pandemics, forever wars, and great power showdowns, it might come as a surprise that Europe’s next crisis is emerging from disputes over maritime law. In the eastern Mediterranean, a scramble is under way between countries in the region for access to recently discovered gas fields. Conflicting legal claims to the fields are merging with old and new conflicts, and have led to the creation of a new geopolitical front in the eastern Mediterranean that should cause Europeans substantial concern. At the heart of these tensions lies the unresolved dispute in Cyprus and long-standing antagonism between Turkey and Greece, around which a broader front of anti-Turkey forces is lining up. These disputes have also now grown to encompass the civil wars in Libya and Syria, and have drawn in states from as far afield as the Gulf and Russia.
The eastern Mediterranean’s potential for escalation was evident in February 2020, when France deployed its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to defensively stalk Turkish frigates sailing near to the contested gas fields close to Cyprus. The fact that NATO allies are staring each other down on the European Union’s doorstep should cause all Europeans to pay greater attention to the region. The escalating conflict in Libya and the rivalry between Turkey and its Gulf rivals now directly intersect with the European-Turkish disputes over gas and territory. What happens in the eastern Mediterranean is no longer a peripheral issue for Europe.
The EU has a direct stake in the matter, but remains divided on how to approach it. The bloc has a significant interest in upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cyprus, securing its own energy interests, and advancing a political resolution to the conflict in Libya to manage refugee and terrorism challenges. The anti-Turkey front that has converged in the eastern Mediterranean is led by EU member states Cyprus, Greece, and France. They, in turn, are working with players from further afield, such the United Arab Emirates, whose intensifying competition with Turkey is a defining feature of the strained – and ever-more destabilising – situation in the Middle East. But, collectively, these countries’ activity risks entrenching geopolitical fault lines, with consequences for Europe as a whole, not least the crucial relationship with Turkey.
To address this, the EU and its member states need to change tack and pursue a wider, inclusive deal with Turkey. They will need to incrementally agree on the components of this new bargain and, critically, base it on pragmatic engagement with Ankara rather than escalatory measures against it. Europe’s decision-makers are aware that they cannot afford a complete diplomatic breakdown, much less a kinetic confrontation, with Turkey given the world of trouble already present on their eastern and southern flanks.
This awareness needs to translate into a policy shift in which Europeans remain committed to key policy principles – namely, the sovereignty of Cypriot and, therefore, EU territory – but also recognise the dangers of current tensions with Ankara, as well as the convergence of Middle Eastern conflict lines within areas of their dispute. This approach can only succeed if Turkey also demonstrates its support for it by scaling back its drilling activity and naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Europeans should incentivise Turkey to do so by dialling down the recent military and political measures they have put in place. This will help prevent the dispute from slipping into increasingly zero-sum and dangerous positioning, while dispelling the impression that Europe has ganged up on Turkey in a common cause with Arab states.
‚Deep Sea Rivals: Europe, Turkey, and New Eastern Mediterranean Conflict Lines‘ – Policy Paper by Team of Authors – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.