Since August, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has risen sharply. On August 12, a Greek warship collided with a Turkish warship at sea; then, Turkey and Greece held military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean at the same time, tit-for-tat and tense swords. Greece is supported by its European allies Cyprus, France and Italy, and Turkey, unwilling to show weakness, intercepted Greek fighter planes during the military exercise. This is the most serious friction that has erupted between NATO members since the armed confrontation between Turkey and Greece over the ownership of islands in the Aegean Sea in 1996. As more countries are involved, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has become increasingly tense, adding another layer of pressure to the already declining relationship between Turkey and Europe.
”Old passions” interlocking
energy dispute is the direct cause of the current tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean appears. In the past 10 years, many large oil and gas fields have been discovered in this area, triggering fierce competition among neighboring countries. In view of the fact that the Mediterranean Sea is a semi-enclosed sea area, especially in the east coast with many countries and dense islands, the identification of maritime boundaries, continental shelves, and exclusive economic zones by various countries overlap each other, which intensifies the complexity of the contradictions.
Among them, the conflict of interest between Greece and Turkey is the most acute. The two countries have been in a long-term dispute over the sovereignty of Cyprus: the Republic of Northern Cyprus supported by Turkey has not been universally recognized by the international community, and Greece is firmly bound to the Republic of Cyprus in the south. After the discovery of oil and gas in the waters near the island of Cyprus, Turkey actively advocated that Northern Cyprus has the right to share the newly discovered resources, while at the same time, it requested a larger exclusive economic zone on the grounds that it is the “country with the longest coastline along the Mediterranean Sea”, which caused Greece Wait for the country to be vigilant.
In 2017, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Israel and others signed a memorandum of understanding on the joint construction of submarine pipelines, intending to bypass Turkey and send natural gas to Europe. At the beginning of 2019, seven countries including Greece, Serbia, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt formed the “Eastern Mediterranean Natural Gas Forum”, which also excluded Turkey. Among these countries, Greece, Serbia, Israel, and Egypt are at odds with Turkey. They diverge with Turkey on regional hotspot issues such as Syria, Libya, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. They have promoted the expansion of energy cooperation in the diplomatic and military fields, making the oil and gas alliances have The taste of the “anti-soil front”.
Turkey considers this to be its own strategic isolation and economic blockade, and it is striving for a breakthrough. At the end of 2019, Turkey signed a maritime agreement with the government of national unity in western Libya to redefine the exclusive economic zone of the two countries and expand the jurisdiction of Turkey in the Mediterranean. This directly challenged the maritime borders of Greece, Serbia, and Egypt, and denied all maritime rights and interests claimed by Greece based on the island of Crete. Not only that, to ensure the effective survival of the agreement, Turkey also directly sent troops to Libya to support the government of national unity, reverse the situation on the battlefield, and stand on the opposite side of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Russia and other countries.
In order to countermeasures, Greece, Israel, and Serbia began to accelerate the East Mediterranean pipeline project early this year. In August, Greece and Egypt signed an agreement on maritime cooperation to defuse the impact of the Turkmen Agreement. Turkey was strongly dissatisfied with this, and sent scientific research ships to conduct exploration activities in the disputed waters, and sent warships to escort. Greece also took the color, and interested countries stood in line. Not only did France, Italy, etc. disregard their NATO relationship with Turkey and personally stand on the side of Greece, even the United Arab Emirates, which has little involvement in the oil and gas dispute, said that it will deploy fighters to Crete in the near future to participate in the Greek military exercise. So far, the Eastern Mediterranean dispute has gone beyond the energy sector, intertwined with issues such as maritime delimitation, the Cyprus dispute, the Libyan civil war and even the struggle for geopolitical dominance in the Middle East, forming a vicious circle that is interlocking.
Turkish-European relations may fall into a “new normal”
Turkey is at the center of the vortex and is a relatively isolated party in the confrontation, but it does not mean to compromise or compromise, because the Eastern Mediterranean involves Turkey’s core interests.
The soil needs oil and gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is an energy-poor country. In 2014, its oil and natural gas output could only meet 13% and 1% of domestic demand. In 2018, the import consumption of domestic energy reached 43.5 billion U.S. dollars, which became an important factor influencing the current account deficit. At present, Turkey’s economic growth has stalled, the local currency has depreciated sharply, foreign exchange reserves have shrunk, and import costs have soared. As a result, the desire for offshore oil and gas resources is even greater.
It is Turkey’s long-term strategic goal to build the “Eurasian Energy Corridor” and even the “World Energy Hub” relying on its advantageous geographical location. It aims to enhance Turkey’s position and role in the global economy and expand Turkey’s policy initiative towards Europe. Participating in energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean and sharing the key voice is a necessary condition for Turkey to achieve this goal. At present, European natural gas imports are highly dependent on the transit Turkish pipeline. In the future, the new Ruodong Mediterranean pipeline will bypass the soil and be built, which will dilute the strategic value of the existing pipeline and deprive it of a trump card in the management of relations with Europe.
Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership is also known for its ambitious ambitions to dominate regional affairs, serve as the leader of the Islamic world, and restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire. Sea power expansion is an essential part of its “great power dream.” In 2006, the Turkish government put forward the concept of “Blue Homeland”, claiming that as much as 462,000 square kilometers of sea areas are within its “legal” maritime jurisdiction, of which the Mediterranean area is 189,000 square kilometers, far exceeding the current actual control area. Driven by this concept, Turkey will maintain the momentum of pioneering and expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On August 12, 2020, the Turkish scientific research ship “Oruchi Reis” conducted exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
In addition, Turkmen President Erdogan is facing an unprecedented crisis in power and needs to use external contradictions to divert people’s attention from poor epidemic prevention and control, economic and livelihood deterioration, and to avoid diplomatic and military failures, which will aggravate public dissatisfaction.
The limited space for soil to soften its position in the Eastern Mediterranean has caused Europe to face the same difficult choice. On the one hand, the EU has the urge to support Greece and Cyprus. This is not only because the two countries are full members of the European Union, but the deeper reason lies in the fact that most of the EU countries are in different camps from Turkey on issues such as the Syrian civil war and Kurdish armed forces. In addition, Turkey’s recent constitutional revision and restructuring, strengthening of centralization, and calling for the return of Islamic values have all deviated from mainstream European values. The continued expansion of Turkey-Russia cooperation has also severely weakened the political mutual trust between Turkey and Europe. In this context, the further expansion of the influence of the containment soil in the Eastern Mediterranean will not only promote the diversification of the European energy market, but also help reduce security risks on the southern border of the EU.
However, the EU is unwilling and cannot “tear the face” with Turkey, and it must always leave room for dialogue and negotiation. The first is that the country guards the southern gate of Europe, which is the key “firewall” to isolate the turmoil and refugee flows in the Middle East. There are currently about 4 million refugees in Turkey, which is an important bargaining chip for Turkey to ask prices from Europe. The second is that the EU still needs the cooperation of Turkey in restoring order in the Middle East, politically resolving the Syrian and Libyan issues, and counter-terrorism. The third is to maintain NATO unity. The major EU countries are also members of NATO. They must not only control Turkey and Greece to prevent wars from breaking out between allies, but also avoid excessive pressure and stimulate Turkey to move closer to its strategic rival Russia.
The dilemma has spawned divisions within the EU. Greece, Serbia and Turkey have entered a zero-sum game and refuse to retreat. France and Italy are deeply involved in the energy development of the Eastern Mediterranean and have significant interests in Libya. They advocate being tough on Turkey. Germany, on the other hand, is reluctant to anger Erdogan excessively because of its millions of Turkish nationals, calling for dialogue between the two sides. The Eastern Mediterranean dispute not only once again tested the pressure-bearing capacity of Turkey-Europe relations, but also challenged the effectiveness of the EU and NATO’s internal coordination mechanisms.
From Turkey’s standpoint, as a Western ally for a long time, Turkey has long formed a strategic interest pattern in which security depends on the United States and the economy depends on Europe. Although Erdogan has made adjustments since he took office, it is not enough to cause a qualitative change. Europe is still Turkey’s largest export market and source of foreign investment. Although Erdogan is not afraid of colliding with Europe on major differences of interest, he is unwilling to completely fall out with Europe.
The mutual demand between Turkey and Europe is structural. At the same time, the trend of widening ideological and policy divergence is not likely to be reversed in the short term. Coupled with unresolved historical issues, these have determined that conflicts like the Eastern Mediterranean dispute will continue to take place. In the future, fighting without breaking may become the “new normal” of the game between Turkey and Europe.