Greco-Turkish maritime disputes, formulated in competing narratives of national sovereignties, are not new. Moreover, it has also long been true that the two parties fail to agree on a framework within which to settle their differences. Despite intermittent outbreaks, these disputes have traditionally taken the form of a simmering but frozen conflict. Despite the relative respite from the tension since early 2021, this only came after a period of high tension in the eastern Mediterranean between 2016 and 2020. In addition to these tensions, the crisis undoubtedly appeared more perilous during this period. period than any other point. on time. This begs the question of what was so special about the crisis at that precise time.
The crisis has been aggravated and complicated by two geopolitical developments linked to energy and geopolitics: gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Libyan conflict. Two systemic changes also made this period more perilous: the power vacuum created by the United States reducing its regional role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the loss of the framework for EU membership in Turkish relations. -European / Greek. This emerging vacuum (left by the United States) has sparked a race for power and influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East that should serve as a wake-up call for the European Union to play a greater role in the de-escalation of the crisis. . To put it differently, the traditional sources of friction between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus now overlap with another set of geopolitical tensions and energy disputes nested in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and a group of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES). As such, not only has the number of countries involved in the crisis grown, but its scope has also widened to include new issues, including recent energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean and the ever more sprawling Libyan imbroglio – and all of this is happening at a time when the United States is shrinking its regional footprint.
However, there has recently been a pervasive feeling that the worst has been averted in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis as it once again turned into a manageable crisis. Several factors explain this largely immature conclusion. The election of Joe Biden in the United States, the convergence between Europe and the United States on the Eastern Mediterranean, the worsening of the economic crisis in Turkey and the prospect of economic sanctions in the event of the continuation of the activities of exploration in disputed waters have all contributed to the de-escalation in the crisis. Moreover, the recent de-escalation between Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel also informs this premature reading. However, despite the de-escalation, the essence of the crisis is far from resolved. Any new exploration activity could exacerbate the tension. Therefore, more needs to be done, in particular on the part of the EU, to tackle the crisis.
WHAT TO DO? —- The speeches on how to resolve the crisis are appealing but not realistic at this stage, especially in a short period of time. As stated above, there is not just one crisis to resolve, but multiple crises. But what is crucial is that the current phase of de-escalation of the crisis continues. The most important element of the de-escalation has been the cessation of drilling and exploration activities in the disputed waters. This must continue if negotiations between the rival parties are to begin in earnest. To support de-escalation, a set of international meetings and conferences could serve this purpose. Turkey previously called for a conference of countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean to discuss their differences, while European Council President Charles Michel called for an international conference. At this stage, the latter, composed of participants from the countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean plus Europe and NATO, could be a good start to deal with the crisis in a multilateral framework.
Pointing to the perceived “failure” of the Berlin conference on Libya, some might question the usefulness and effectiveness of an international conference on the Eastern Mediterranean. However, unlike Libya, where all the big players work by proxy, the main players in the Eastern Mediterranean are on the ground. Because no one can hide behind proxies if they cause an incident, an international conference is more likely to be effective. Likewise, in the Eastern Mediterranean, neither party has an interest in perpetuating the conflict. All parties have already made matters worse in the hope that other parties will step back and give them a way out. An international conference would therefore make it possible to emerge from the crisis in order to save face. Greece and Turkey have already agreed to establish a NATO-level conflict exit mechanism. This is a welcome development, which greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of an incident occurring between them. Although there is no exploration activity in the disputed waters at this time, this mechanism should be maintained as a safety option against any future incidents. All of the aforementioned measures aim to keep the conflict de-escalated and, while de-escalation is essential, it should not be the end goal. Rather, it should be a strategy to facilitate negotiations and leave room for more imaginative political alternatives.
PROMOTING A REGIONAL COOPERATION FRAMEWORK —- Until the current crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean is resolved, the region is likely to experience new crises. In addition, any conflict offers an opening for actors such as Russia to intervene. Europe must therefore promote a more imaginative foreign policy and a broader regional vision. In fact, during the current crisis there have been references to past visionary achievements of Europe in the form of calls for a new Schuman Plan or a new Barcelona Process. While a Schuman plan indicates a visionary approach to an intractable crisis, invoking a new Barcelona process implies a wider region-to-region dialogue between Europe and the countries of the southern Mediterranean, with a positive agenda for the ‘to come up. We sorely need such a visionary and regional framework to deal with the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean.
At the heart of these proposals is the idea that the Eastern Mediterranean should be treated as a shared space and that its strategic resources – oil and gas – should advance the cause of cooperation, rather than conflict, among its states. residents. While there are many different ways to achieve these lofty goals, they all require Europe to develop a geopolitical vision and commitment. To be more concrete, if the gas discoveries have triggered recent tensions, the crisis is essentially political. Despite the initial optimism, it now appears that gas reserves are smaller and less lucrative than expected, putting the Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline project to Europe out of reach. In addition, the European energy transition and decarbonisation goals mean that the commercial value of gas will decrease further in the future, which could potentially open a channel of conversation between the EU and the states bordering the Eastern Mediterranean on the energy transition and decarbonisation in the European neighborhood. For this to happen, the EU must push forward a major decarbonization vision, as well as a plan and commitment to implement it. At present, given the division within Europe and the disagreement among Middle Eastern states over the nature of the regional order, such a plan might not find wide resonance. That said, even a discussion on the topic among officials could shift the nature of the conversation about the Eastern Mediterranean towards a more cooperative one, thus helping to reduce tensions.
Finally, the EU should either try to facilitate Turkey’s accession to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum or design a trilateral framework in which the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum countries, the EU and Turkey could explore ways to manage their differences and cooperate. Either way, the EU’s road to becoming a geopolitical player in this scenario involves navigating the rough waters of the Eastern Mediterranean imbroglio. At this point, against the backdrop of further regional de-escalation, an upsurge in tension, similar to those that occurred in 2016-2020, is unlikely. However, further exploration or drilling activity by any party in the disputed waters could easily trigger a new period of tension in the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the apparent calm should not fool anyone: the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean remains ripe for further escalation.
“The crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean requires a region-wide framework” – Commentary by Galip Dalay – Italian Institute for International Policy Studies / ISPI.
(The commentary can be downloaded here: