France and Italy aligning in East Med, may bring Turkey sanctions - analyst

Turkey’s assertive stance in the eastern Mediterranean is bringing France and Italy closer together and raising the likelihood of EU sanctions, Michaël Tanchum, senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies, said on Wednesday.

Italy had previously seen Turkey as balancing French influence in the region, including in Libya, but this now appears to be changing, Tanchum said in an article for Foreign Policy.

Turkey is a key supporter of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which controls oil and natural gas assets held by Italian energy company Eni. While France backs the rival administration headed by General Khalifa Haftar of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army.

But “Rome cannot tolerate the GNA’s dependence on Turkey as a security provider to the extent it will render Eni’s energy interests subject to Ankara’s dictates”, Tanchum said.

Meanwhile, Italy and Turkey have increasingly been at odds over the recent discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, which has seen Eni as a leading partner in a joint pipeline project with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel to export gas to Europe.

Turkey claims the pipeline does not respect its territorial rights and has sought to block the development by conducting naval exercises in the region, as well as signing a maritime agreement covering parts of the disputed area with the GNA in Libya.

Thus far, the European Union has been unable to agree on a joint response, and a meeting of member states at which the issue was to be raised this week was postponed.  But if Italy turns towards France, Tanchum said, “it is likely that the entire southern EU will swing in favour of some form of sanctions”.

However, obstacles to unanimous EU action against Turkey remain.

“Eastern EU states whose foremost concern is Russia are reluctant to antagonise Ankara, which fields NATO’S largest military after the United States and plays an important role in restraining Russian military adventurism on Europe’s eastern borders,” he said.