'EU's inaction in East Mediterranean crisis is unsustainable' - Ahval Forum

The Turkish-Greek crisis in the eastern Mediterranean has entered a new tense phase after the signing of a maritime treaty between Egypt and Greece on Thursday that delimited an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between the two countries in an area containing offshore oil and gas reserves.

Ankara declared the deal as null and void, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a resumption of naval drilling off Greek islands and Cyprus in response. Last month, Turkey said it had agreed to temporarily suspend gas and oil exploration in the region depending on the outcome of negotiations with Greece and Germany, which has taken a mediating role in the spat. 

Yannis Koutsomitis, editor of Kappa News in Athens, and Prof Cengiz Aktar, expert columnist with Ahval News Online, discussed the latest escalation with Yavuz Baydar, Ahval's editor-in-chief, in the Hot Pursuit podcast.

Koutsomitis said that Greece had wanted a deal delimitating maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean with Egypt for almost 15 years, but Cairo was long reluctant to accept it for fear of irritating Turkey.

Greece made some concessions to Egypt to get the deal signed, including limiting the scope of the maritime zones, and he said the deal had now strengthened Greece’s diplomatic hand since “it is based on a legitimate international agreement which was not the case until a few days ago”.

The deal is a response to an agreement signed in November between Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) which sought to establish an EEZ to legitimise Turkey’s claims to offshore gas and oil reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, much to the ire of Greece, Egypt and other nations collaborating on a pipeline project of their own off the Cypriot coast.

The Turkish-GNA agreement created a sea corridor between the two nations which cuts through the boundaries claimed by Greece and Egypt. Cairo and Athens have condemned Turkey’s deal as a violation of international law.

Koutsomitis said Thursday's deal between Greece and Egypt was a personal blow for Erdoğan, who “needs to show to his audience, to the Turkish society that he can dominate in the eastern Mediterranean. That’s apparently not the case”.

He said that, while some Turkish sources are now seemingly raising the possibility of an armed confrontation, perhaps to intimidate Greece, the threat did not seem feasible.

“If something happens some allies will jump in and will not let Erdoğan go forward especially now since Egypt is on board,” Koutsomitis said. “There was also a declaration from the United Arab Emirates congratulating the two countries for the agreement. I am sure Saudis will join as well. No one wants conflicts. The question is how Erdoğan's eagerness to score political points will end.”

Cengiz Aktar said “the partial deal between Egypt and Greece had a really bomb-like effect in Ankara and elsewhere in Turkey. I was very surprised”. Aktar said that it had made the architects of Turkey’s so-called “Blue Homeland” naval expansion doctrine angry, and he said sources had confirmed to him that talks initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and set to take place on August 24 had been unilaterally cancelled by Ankara.

“I think the painful consequences of the state of affairs is that we have taken the note that it is almost impossible to dialogue with non-democratic countries," he said.

Koutsomitis said that, with Turkey’s economic woes growing and the lira nosediving, there is limited room for the Turkish government to make bold moves in the eastern Mediterranean.

“My assessment is that Erdoğan will definitely send the drilling ships towards the area, but I think he will not go as far as the real drilling. And he will get out of it in terms of communication to generals on one side and the Turkish public on the other side," he said.

Aktar noted that Brussels is largely absent from the dispute, and Baydar said the European Union’s inaction in the eastern Mediterranean crisis is now unsustainable.

Koutsomitis added that the deal would strengthen Greece’s position on the issue within NATO.

“I think the Greek PM is much more politically strong now in order to show some real force trying to get the allies together," he said. "He shows willingness to negotiate to make concessions to neighbouring countries regarding the delimitation. I don’t think there is a reason to expect that Greece will kneel down to Erdoğan's threats.”