EU Commission chief vows tough stance on Turkey amid escalating row with Greece

Turkey recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to demarcate maritime zones in the region triggering strong reactions in Athens, Nicosia and Cairo. [ΕΠΑ/ STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Ursula Von Der Leynen, the new President of the European Commission, said that the EU executive fully backs Greece in its dangerously escalating row with Turkey over maritime zones.

“We are on your side, Turkey’s action in the Aegean is unacceptable, we will send a clear message to Turkey,” von Der Leyen said yesterday (9 December) at a summit of chairmen of parliamentary groups from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

Turkey recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to demarcate maritime zones in the region, in a move that triggered strong reactions in Athens, Nicosia and Cairo.

The Turkish-Libyan deal ignores the island of Crete and Greece says Turkey wants to set a legal precedent with an “illegal” MoU under international law.

Following Turkey’s move, Greece and Egypt decided to speed up discussions for the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zones between them.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said the memorandum between Turkey and Libya is the result of “blackmail” exerted by Ankara. Europe should send a clear message to Turkey and prepare sanctions in case Libya and Turkey do not comply, Dendias added.

Earlier this week, Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador in Athens, a move described by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an “international scandal”.

“Athens will pay the price for its actions internationally,” the Turkish President warned.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed his solidarity towards Greece and Cyprus, saying the Turkey-Libya deal causes “severe concerns” in Brussels. The European Commission is now examining the content of the deal which according to Borrell is problematic for the territorial waters of Greece and Cyprus.

“It could cause trouble in the Greek islands,” the EU’s top diplomat said.

France, Italy and the Netherlands expressed their “full support” to Greece yesterday, during a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels. With his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio, Dendias took a step further and decided to meet in Rome soon to “jointly coordinate the next actions”.

The discovery of oil and gas reserves in the region has brought Greece, Cyprus and Israel closer together. The three countries enjoy American backing for EastMed, a pipeline designed to transport offshore gas reserves from Cyprus via Greece to other EU countries.

Greek sources told that any steps Turkey is taking in the eastern Mediterranean endanger the EastMed gas pipeline and EU energy security as a whole, at a time when Turkey is working closely with Russia in bringing forward the Turkstream gas pipeline.

In the meantime, Libyan parliament speaker Aguila Saleh Eissa has sent an official letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying that the Turkey-Libya MoU is invalid and the Libyan House of Representatives does not recognise it.

He also called on the UN to issue a resolution withdrawing its recognition of the Libyan Government of National Accord. According to the Libyan Parliament Speaker, the current government is illegal and uses the MoU to deliver economic and territorial access to Turkey, which has no sea border with Libya.

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Handing Libya to Turkey

In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini accused the Italian government of “handing” Libya to Turkey.

Libya has been a priority for Italy both in terms of security and immigration, but also for oil and gas company ENI and other Italian firms operating there, he said.

“Now, Libya is handed to the French and Turkey. Playing to China’s hand is what has been left, and Israel is quite angry with Italy,” Salvini commented.

Foreign policy experts also pointed to the long-standing economic ties between Libya and Turkey, saying Tripoli’s move could be seen as a form of payback to Ankara.

“Turkish companies, especially construction-related ones, had received large numbers of contracts to build Libya’s infrastructure, and hence Turkey has been committed to supporting the internationally recognised government, including through the sale of a variety of military equipment,” said Henri J Barkey, a former US official who is now Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University.

“The maritime agreement is that government’s payback to Ankara,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Syndication Bureau, published on EURACTIV.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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