The contentious issues between leading NATO member Turkey and Western European countries abound: Syrian refugees, Turkey’s maritime boundaries with Greece and Cyprus, drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Turkish military operations in Syria and Libya, and NATO’s missile defense architecture.
Lately, Ankara has chosen to pursue an antagonistic approach, making disruption a major ingredient of its foreign policy. When existing rules do not serve its objectives—as with the dispute over maritime boundaries and drilling permits—Turkey unilaterally creates new rules, in the belief that the other side will bow to pressure.
The subject of maritime boundaries has been discussed and studied for decades. More recently, gas discoveries emerged in Egyptian, Israeli, and Cypriot waters. Exploiting other potential gas discoveries in the area is the current focus of Ankara.
Diversification from its current energy dependence on Russian and Iranian gas would indeed be beneficial to Turkey. But the recent drop in gas prices and the large availability of liquefied natural gas from many sources has rendered the exploitation of deep-sea gas resources less attractive. In other words, ownership and exploitation of gas fields is not the primary driver behind Turkey’s current policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The reasons for Turkey’s policy attitude are to be found in the country’s domestic political situation.
Opinion polls are bleak for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has been in power since November 2002. Since the 2017 change of constitution, the 2018 presidential and legislative elections, and the 2019 municipal election, the religious-conservative party has lost its long-standing political dominance in Turkey.
In addition, a string of misguided economic and monetary policy decisions—especially on interest rates—has put the economy and the Turkish lira in dire straits, despite spending $65 billion in hard currency reserves to buffer the country’s currency.
In fueling the current disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, the leadership is using a narrative revolving around themes such as “conquest”—referring to the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul—“battles and wars,” a huge (and undefined) “foreign conspiracy,” and a return to “glory.”
A vast social media campaign is implemented around these themes, blending them with new developments in the military industry, infrastructures, and energy-production prospects. The domestic political objective is clear enough: making the leadership appear as an indispensable anchor of stability in a country besieged by hostile forces. Read: June 2023’s presidential and legislative elections.
In the background, Turkey’s governance has evolved toward a full autocracy with a judiciary under executive control, a nonexistent independent media, and a suppressed civil society. The result is that Turkey’s political system is now very far from Western norms.
This situation and the methods used by Ankara are by definition the exact opposite of European political culture, which instead gives precedence to good neighborly relations and a peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Dialogue and a benevolent approach to divergences are the European tools, and they have been used repeatedly with Ankara—to no avail so far. Finding a way forward has become difficult, as illustrated by the inconclusive visit of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Athens and Ankara on August 25, 2020.
At the Special European Council on September 24–25, the EU’s heads of state and government will have no other choice than to reaffirm its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus (internal solidarity is a basic principle of the EU). It will again offer its full readiness to engage in a frank dialogue with Turkey, provided that such a dialogue is not conducted under permanent threats.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reiterated the country’s readiness to enter such a dialogue, but only without Greek preconditions. At this point, the EU and Turkey are in perfect deadlock.
On substance, the view that Turkey’s landmass deserves a fairer exclusive economic zone carries some weight—although not with the expanse one finds in the maps produced in Ankara or in those resulting from the outlandish Turkey-Libya maritime agreement of November 2019.
Some nongovernmental voices in Turkey claim that the current attitude is only meant to bring the parties to the table. In other words, asking loudly for a complete redrawing of the maritime boundaries on Turkey’s terms and sending warships left and right would only be the prelude to a genuine negotiation.
If one accepts this reading of Erdoğan’s claims, the least one can say is that it has so far produced the opposite result. Greece, Cyprus, and the EU are resisting Ankara’s bullying methods—with all the frustrations, costs, and risks that this involves.
In addition, Ankara makes a point of separating EU members between Greece, Cyprus, and France, whom it accuses of warmongering, and others—especially Germany, Italy, and Spain—who supposedly understand Turkey better. The Turkish government is making a strategic mistake in assuming that the EU is a spent political force, that it can divide it at will, and that EU leaders will inevitably have to bow to Turkey’s newly affirmed sense of power.
Is there a genuine willingness to compromise in Ankara?
It seems doubtful. Any compromise solution on maritime boundaries would look like a defeat for the Turkish government after the extreme rhetoric used in recent weeks.
In addition, the AKP leadership has to take into account the maximalist position of its crucial ally, the nationalist National Movement Party. If this assumption is valid, the litigation on maritime boundaries could last for a few more years until the June 2023 presidential election, one that Erdoğan cannot afford to lose.
In the short-term, the only way forward for the EU is to stick to its principles—especially on internal solidarity and readiness to discuss divergences in a decent fashion—while unambiguously resisting any attempt by Turkey to bully its way forward. This calls for a mix of agile diplomacy and strong military signals.
If Ankara understands that the EU is genuinely united around these principles, well beyond the apparent differences in style and language, there is certainly a path to dialogue. If such a dialogue was to be genuine but unsuccessful, recourse to the International Court of Justice would ultimately be possible.
The bottom line is whether the Turkish leadership has a real interest in finding and implementing a compromise, or if its military shows of force and fierce narratives of conquest are simply the essential ingredients in diverting public attention from a dismal economic situation and poor showings in opinion polls.
If the latter, don’t rule out a conflagration in the Eastern Mediterranean, if only by accident.