Turkey’s Veto in the Eastern Mediterranean Isn’t Enough
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Eastern Mediterranean epitomizes the shifts in the global order: American retrenchment, coupled with the continuing ineffectiveness of the European Union, has created space for local actors to engage in hard-power politics. This has worked in Turkey’s favor—for now.
Faced with a consortium of rival countries—Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt—all intent on capitalizing on the off-shore energy resources in Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey last year launched a strong counteroffensive. On the diplomatic front, Ankara signed an agreement in November with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, to demarcate bilateral maritime borders. The agreement underscored Ankara’s desire for an extensive continental shelf in Eastern Mediterranean. It clashed with the partitioning planned by the rival group of countries.
In return, Turkey promised military assistance to the GNA in its fight against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar. This was delivered in the shape of sophisticated weapons, such as armed drones, as well as Turkish military advisors, special ops troops and Syrian proxies.
That gambit appears to have paid off handsomely. Turkey’s backing has allowed the GNA to inflict a string of battlefield defeats on Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. The rebel commander has been forced to accept a ceasefire.
Turkey also acted decisively off-shore, by obstructing the exploration of gas by private companies in the contested zones of the Mediterranean and launching its own exploration missions. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won popular support at home for this posture, which is part of its “Blue Homeland” doctrine calling for a more aggressive defense of Turkey’s off-shore sovereign rights.
By obstructing developments inimical to its national interest, Turkey has demonstrated its ability to be a “veto” power in the Eastern Mediterranean. But to capitalize on its strategic gains Ankara should now prioritize multilateral diplomacy, or risk being mired in regional conflicts. The danger is that Erdogan, buoyed by these early gains, will invest even more resources in hard-power tactics, at the expense of coalition-building and diplomacy. This would only harden anti-Turkey alliances, on land and off-shore.
Resolving those conflicts will also require the EU to re-assess its dysfunctional approach to Turkey. As things stand, the Europeans have no real leverage over Erdogan; on the contrary, it is Turkey that can pressure the EU over the refugee issue.
The EU’s predicament is the result of its stalling of Turkey’s accession process and the failure of Brussels to come up with a new constructive engagement with Ankara. The confrontation in Eastern Mediterranean provides an entry point for the Europeans to re-engage with Ankara.
A good start would be for the EU to appoint a special representative for the Eastern Mediterranean, just as it has for the Middle East peace process and for the Horn of Africa. They would be tasked with conducting shuttle diplomacy between Ankara, Brussels, Athens and Nicosia to work toward a deal on sharing off-shore resources. This would allow the EU to address its differences with Turkey over the Eastern Mediterranean without being hindered by the toxicity of other bilateral disputes.
The EU should combine this initiative with additional trust-building measures. The most realistic step would be to finally approve the start of negotiations for the modernization of the Turkey-EU customs union, which has been held up since December 2016 by the Europeans, ostensibly because of Turkey’s democratic backsliding. A second option would be to offer sizeable financial assistance for the EU’s neighbours, including Turkey, to mitigate the negative economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Turkey will need to reciprocate with steps of its own, perhaps starting with improvements in the rule of law, including the independence of the judiciary. A direct benefit for the EU would be better compliance with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, including the symbolic case of the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala.
Ultimately, for a virtuous cycle of EU engagement and Turkish reforms to work, the European offer needs to be seen in Ankara as one of real substance and credibility. Likewise, Turkey’s reform agenda needs to be genuine and consequential. The rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean could possibly provide the missing impetus for Ankara and Brussels to finally re-structure their relationship toward a more constructive future.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sinan Ulgen is the executive chairman of Istanbul-based think tank EDAM and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
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