There may be a way to de-escalate the EU-Turkey stand-off

Erdogan’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean have been both hostile and provocative

Published : 18 Sep 2020 09:58 PM | Updated : 19 Sep 2020 01:04 AM

Next Friday and Saturday, the 27 leaders of the European Union will gather in Brussels for a special meeting of the European Council and, according to the agenda published by the EU Consilium — the secretariat that looks after the administrative and bureaucratic needs of the Eurocrats — the single market, industrial policy and digital transformation will be discussed, so too the coronavirus pandemic.

And so too “external relations” — which is euro-speak for coming up with some sort of a plan for dealing with Turkey.

While Brussels too might be the administrative base for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, there is little love lost right now between both EU and Nato members and Ankara: Putting it mildly, Turkey’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean have been provocative.

The spat between Ankara and the EU has turned ugly, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan becoming increasingly bellicose warning his adversaries: “Don’t mess with Turkey”.

But the EU is determined to hold Ankara to account, and it has the support of the international community including the UAE and Egypt.

President Emmanuel Macron of France has been in lockstep with the Greek and Cypriot leaderships and has dispatched frigates to the area in anticipation of heavy-handed provocations by Erdogan.

The reality is this is a dispute that has been simmering away for two years now, ever since Ankara decided that the waters around Cyprus were fair game for Turkish oil and gas exploration vessels to look for petro-carbon deposits in a maritime area that is broadly recognised as belonging to Nicosia.

The whole issue stems from that fact that Turkey is the only  nation to recognise the Turkish- occupied northeast corner of Cyprus its paratroopers seized illegally  in 1974.

If you’re a fraudster, con man or any other criminal wanted on foot of an Interpol warrant, then you are likely to be living in the enclave. It has no international standing, no recognition — other than by Ankara — and no extradition.

United Nations observer force

Over the past four decades, the EU has attempted to try and solve the island’s division. It has failed, so too the United Kingdom, and there’s still a significant United Nations observer force on the ground where the rogue state has been carved off Cyprus.

Erdogan and his cohorts argue that since there’s a significant presence on the ground of UK troops and aeroplanes, then there’s justification for Ankara to station a considerable force in its fiefdom too.

But Erdogan has been trying to stir up Turkish nationalist fervour — his economy is in tatters and coronavirus has led to barbed criticism of his government’s handling of the crisis — in what Brussels and its Nato allies see as a crude attempt to deflect. 

But Erdogan is likely to have miscalculated the extent to which the drilling has antagonised the Europeans. His argument is that the fiefdom of North Cyprus allows Turkey to drill in an area that is clearly in Cypriot and Greek waters.

As far as Nato is concerned, it says both Athens and Ankara have 

agreed to participate in technical talks that might prevent any 

action by any vessel or aircraft in the disputed area as being 

“misinterpreted”. That’s code word for saying that if something 

happens, it hopefully won’t quickly lead to shots being fired in anger

He is also betting that the EU won’t go too far lest he open the floodgates once more to tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and across the Levant and beyond who want to get into the EU.

His government is being paid by Brussels to keep those refugees in Turkey — but it’s a deal that’s leaking at the edges in disputes  over the terms and amount of payment.

Earlier this week, Charles Michel, the former Belgian Prime Minister who is now president of the European Council — the group that makes up the heads of state of the 27 EU members, visited Greece.

Struggling to eke out survival

While the island of Lesbos was on his list of places to visit — a devastating fire at the largest refugee camp on the island has left some 13,000 struggling to eke out survival there — his overriding motive was to shore up support in Athens ahead of next week’s EU summit.

As with most standoffs — particularly those where frigates are dispatched and there’s a nasty war of words between heads of state — someone is bound to blink first.

And maybe that blink is coming from Ankara. Whether it will be enough to deter the EU from imposing sanctions of some sort on Ankara remains to be seen, but Brussels is indeed only too well aware that those refugees are waiting inside Turkish borders and are indeed capable of swarming EU borders in scenes that would be reminiscent of five summers ago.

One of the Turkish exploration vessels has returned to port in Antalya and Athens views that as a de-escalation of sorts.

As Greek prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis noted: “The return of the Oruc Reis is a positive first step, I hope there will be continuity. We want to talk with Turkey but in a climate without provocations.”

Ankara, of course, says it’s not giving up on exploring the region for oil and gas, saying the vessel’s return to port was a normal measure and the return had been scheduled for provisioning.

As far as Nato is concerned, it says both Athens and Ankara have agreed to participate in technical talks that might prevent any action by any vessel or aircraft in the disputed area as being “misinterpreted”. That’s code word for saying that if 

something happens, it hopefully won’t quickly lead to shots being fired in anger.

Maybe, just maybe, there might indeed be a way out of this mess.

Luck would have it that recently Turkish exploration vessels discovered a significant find of petrocarbon deposits in the Black Sea. It’s a find that is worth exploring more — and that requires specialised oil and gas vessels, just like the ones causing this friction off Cyprus now.

Might it be too long before they sail away up the Bosporus into the Black Sea and search out those new deposits in waters that are far less hotly disputed?

How convenient would that be — and those stranded refugees would still be on the right side of the EU borders, as far as Brussels are concerned.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe. Source: Gulf News