EU-Turkey relations face make-or-break moment in Berlin  

EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium 13 July 2020. [EPA-EFE/Virginia Mayo]

The escalating row over maritime borders and natural gas reserves that has pitted Turkey against Greece and the rest of the EU has put the bloc’s fragmented, meandering foreign policy to its gravest test in years.

EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the bloc’s bilateral relationship with Ankara during an informal meeting under the helm of the German EU presidency in Berlin (27-28 August). As they intend to touch upon all pending issues with Ankara, EU-Turkey relations are reaching a make-or-break moment.

Although the bloc has repeatedly condemned Turkey for violations of Greece’s airspace and territorial waters, as well as carrying out exploratory drilling off Cyprus, it so far has held back from major punitive measures against Ankara for fear of alienating a strategically important neighbour.

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Turkey has long been the ‘hot potato’ of EU foreign policy, but these days, it is rapidly turning into a really serious problem that cannot be swept under the carpet.

EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, however, has repeatedly urged Ankara and Athens not to give up on efforts to bridge their differences.

Nevertheless, tensions escalated when Turkey sent the Oruc Reis research vessel accompanied by warships into disputed waters on 10 August, to which Greece responded by dispatching its own warships to track the Turkish vessels.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has long clashed with the EU over his country’s drive to become a member of the 27-country bloc – is standing tough.

“We want everyone to see Turkey is no longer a country whose patience, determination, means and courage will be tested. If we say we will do something, we will do it, and we will pay the price,” he said.

In turn, Greece is due to double its western territorial waters with Italy to 12 nautical miles, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Wednesday (26 August). He also left the door open for a similar move on the eastern side with Turkey. For Ankara, such a move would be a cause for war.

Italy and Greece signed an agreement on maritime boundaries in June, establishing an exclusive economic zone and resolving longstanding issues over fishing rights in the Ionian Sea.

A separate maritime agreement with Egypt, a step Turkey said infringed on its continental shelf, is under debate in the Greek parliament and lawmakers are expected to vote on both agreements on Thursday (27 August).

The Greek-Egyptian deal would cancel the controversial memorandum of understanding between Turkey and Libya to demarcate maritime zones in the region. 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.

In Libya, Turkey is constantly breaching an arms embargo that the EU is trying to impose through Operation Sophia. Ankara says the EU-led arms embargo is favouring the Tobruk- based Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar.

On the other hand, Erdogan has expressed support for Faiez el-Serraj, prime minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

Europe has asked for NATO’s involvement in the operation, but NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg hinted on Wednesday that Ankara was blocking it. 

Options and sanctions

Borrell will present a toolbox of options today to address this critical situation with Turkey. According to a senior EU diplomat, these options will be “broader than sanctions”. However, his circles have avoided unveiling any details, even to member states.

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Germany will make another attempt today to push for dialogue between Turkey and Greece under the condition that Turkey stops immediately any illegal activity in the Eastern Mediterranean. It will also reiterate its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, EURACTIV has learnt.

Athens wants sectoral sanctions on Turkish banks “paralysing” an already ailing Turkish economy. However, some hardliners, such as Austria, are pushing for a complete withdrawal of Turkey’s EU candidacy, which would have much wider geopolitical effects.

It would push Ankara closer to Russia and also offer Erdogan another “external enemy” to be used domestically and re-assert his power.

In any event, Borrell’s objective today is to come up with a concrete plan which will show a unified EU approach and avoid another split in foreign policy.

Asked if unanimity for options or sanctions is there, a senior EU diplomat said: “Unanimity always depends on the level of ambition […] this is Borrell’s role, to manage to satisfy the member states’ interests overall”.

War games and diplomacy

Upping the ante, Athens began three days of war games on Wednesday with France, Italy and Cyprus in an area south of Crete, while Turkey conducted drills with the US navy nearby.

The military manoeuvres came a day after Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, during a trip to Athens and Ankara, offered to mediate in the dispute.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said after talks with her EU counterparts in Berlin on Wednesday (26 August) that “what we have to find is a starting point for us to enter once again into political discussions and negotiations”.

“The manoeuvres that took place today are certainly not helpful,” she added.

But an EU diplomat told EURACTIV that the exercise was “complementary” to the ongoing diplomatic push by Germany and Borrell.

“Both the diplomatic push for dialogue and the naval exercise have one objective: to establish stability in the region and lead to de-escalation”, the diplomat said.

The leaders of France and Germany, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, recently admitted that they don’t always agree on the way, but their objectives are the same. At a meeting in France last week, both leaders vowed to ‘preserve’ EU sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said yesterday (20 August) they would not accept attacks on EU member states’ sovereignty, amid an escalating row with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

EURACTIV understands that both Germany and Borrell were aware of the exercise initiative, which means they are using diplomatic channels to push Turkey towards dialogue, while others, led by France, wish to warn Ankara at the military level that Greece is not alone.

France, now the EU’s biggest military power after Brexit, underlined that support with Defence Minister Florence Parly saying the region “should not be a playground for the ambitions of some – it’s a shared asset.”

Tensions have also been high lately between France and Turkey over the conflict in Libya, where Paris and Ankara have accused each other of interference. In the latest incident in the Eastern Mediterranean – now investigated by NATO – Paris says Turkish frigates were “extremely aggressive” towards a French navy vessel participating in a NATO mission in the area.

Migration: EU a hostage of its own failure    

Germany, for its part, is attempting to be an ‘honest broker’ while holding the EU presidency, although it has strong economic interests in Turkey.

But Berlin is particularly anxious to avoid any repeat of the 2015-16 migration crisis, which allowed Erdogan to use the threat of opening Turkey’s borders to migrants as a way of wringing concession in disputes with Brussels. In February, he allowed refugees to cross into Greece, leading to border skirmishes.

The 2015 migration crisis could only be resolved a year later after Ankara signed a landmark deal with the EU to stop the flow in return for incentives that included financial assistance.

On migration, Europe seems to be a hostage of its own failures as it never managed to have an effective policy in place.

The Dublin II asylum regulation has been essentially killed off as a number of member states, mainly in eastern Europe, refused to host refugees from other countries.

A new migration pact is expected to be presented soon, but it’s not certain how ambitious it will be in order for Europe to stop being blackmailed by Turkey every now and then.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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