GP Insights

GP Insights # 404, 30 August 2020

Greece and Turkey: Bilateral relations deteriorate beyond drilling rights
Sourina Bej

What happened? 

Three developments took place this week that has further worsened the relationship between Greece and Turkey amid a conflict over natural gas reserves. 

On 26 August, Greece announced that it would conduct military exercises with France, Italy, and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. The French Armed Forces Ministry confirmed France's participation, adding that it is contributing three French Rafale jets and one frigate equipped with a helicopter to the military exercises. In response, Turkey announced that it had carried out military drills of its own with the US Navy. Turkey's Defense Ministry said on Twitter that "Turkish warships and the USS Winston S Churchill destroyer had taken part in maritime training in the eastern Mediterranean."

The above developments came after Greece ratified an accord on maritime boundaries with Egypt in response to Turkey's operation in the region wherein the later had sent a seismic survey vessel to look for more natural gas reserves. 

The European Union (EU) is caught in the crossfire between Greece and Turkey. The EU, in an attempt to diffuse the conflict between the two NATO countries, has called for dialogue. It also threatened sanctions against Turkey. 

What is the background? 

First, the scramble for natural gas in the Mediterranean. The discovery of gas deposits in waters off the shores of Crete and Cyprus has reignited old rivalries between Greece and Turkey, as both countries counter claims over the energy resources. Both Turkey and Greece have got into agreements with Egypt and Libya to extend its maritime boundaries so as to lay claims over the Black Sea, Aegean, and the Mediterranean where hydrocarbon deposits have been discovered. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis entered into an agreement with Cairo after Turkey started aggressively searching for natural gas reserves in the region on account of its agreement with Libya in 2019. Turkey has claimed that the Cairo-Athens accord overlaps with the continental shelf agreed in the Turkish-Libyan agreement which has been in turn decried as illegal by Greece.

Second, the EU's tough posture against Turkey. With a conflict brewing in Europe's periphery, the EU has tried to deescalate the conflict after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas shuttled between Greece and Turkey on 25 August in an attempt to open channels for dialogue. At the same time, an informal meeting of European Union ministers took place on 27 August in Berlin where Greece mounted pressure on the EU to hit Turkey with sanctions. Until now, Greece's claim has the backing of the EU, but the bloc has refrained from any serious action against Ankara; the EU fears that Erdogan will follow through on threats to allow migrants currently living in Turkey to pass through into Europe. 

Third, a more assertive Turkey. Turkey's pursuits in the Mediterranean today is part of a larger assertive foreign policy by Erdogan to fulfill a regional ambition that extends from Libya to Syria. The Blue Homeland doctrine of Erdogan explicitly envisages these ambitions by crafting a much greater maritime role for Turkey to secure its own strategic waters. Equally, Turkey has locked horns with its Western NATO allies in Syria, steered its own course with Russia and Iran where necessary, and also intervened on the side of the UN-backed Libyan government while the UAE and Egypt backed the eastern front of Gen Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan conflict has also deepened the enmity between Turkey and Egypt. Extending from MENA, Turkey's current geostrategic involvement in the Mediterranean has come.

What does it mean? 

First, the crisis in the Mediterranean will deepen unless both Greece and Turkey take a step back and reevaluate their overlapping legal claims over the continental shelf. A compromise is the way forward but not likely as both countries engage in military exercises to drive home a message to the other. 

Second, the EU's role will be crucial in navigating itself out of the conflict. Sanctions have not deterred Ankara before and will not now. It is an assertive country with strong regional ambitions that the EU is dealing with. Unless an agreement is made with Turkey to resolve the migrant issue, Turkey will continue to use this sticking point as leverage against the later. 

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