28 August 2020

Berlin is making great efforts to reduce the conflicts in Eastern Mediterranean Sea

Negoiţă Sorin

Lately, misunderstandings have increased between the two NATO members, Greece and Turkey, on the exploitation of the mineral resources in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, along with the Libyan crisis, where a series of states in the area are more or less involved, raising concerns on the European security and defence provision. Therefore, there was a need to have a strong mediator, to have the ability to convince the interested parts, and the international community’s attention turn to Germany, which at a first sight, had no interest in the region. During the last days, Berlin took its mediator role seriously, trying, by different means, to bring the fighting parts at the negotiation table.

Image source: Profimedia

The tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea are concerning the European space and beyond

The fight between the two NATO allies, Turkey and Greece, for the hydrocarbon reserves from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is increasingly intense and all the attempts to mediate it so far have failed.  Turkey is still claiming its right over the mineral resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, meanwhile Greece is saying that exploiting the natural oil and gases resources by Turkey in the claimed area is illegal. Talking about this topic, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who does not want to step back in the fight with Greece, has states, two weeks ago, that “We will not kneel, ever, in front on banditry on our continental plateau”. So, he said his country will not step back in front of the threats or possible sanctions and continued to use its maritime exploration ship „Oruç Reis”, which is accompanied by Turkish warships.

The Greek-Turkish tensions, which increased lately and are raising concerns in the European space about the possibility of an armed conflict, has a long history for the two NATO members (they even got close to a war three times already since the mid 70’s). The reason behind this would be the claims over the maritime areas in Eastern Mediterranean Sea[1], where some assume three are oil and natural gases reserves. To that end, Turkey and Lebanon have already signed, in November last year, an agreement which refers to the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Area (EEA), but it was seen, by the Athens and Cairo officials, as a massive breach of their interests. Therefore, at the beginning of August (06.08), the Greek and Egyptian foreign ministers have all of a sudden signed, only one day before the announcement of the restart of talks between Athens and Ankara, a controversial agreement on the maritime jurisdiction of the EEA, which was being negotiated for almost 15 years. Actually the Greek-Egyptian agreement is only partial, not considering all the incorporated details, so it is opened to amendments. However, it seems that this process has provoked an intensification of region’s tensions and sought to draw Ankara’s attention that reshaping the maritime borders, by Turkey, will not be accepted.

Furthermore, the fight over the material prima that Turkey claims does not only take place between Ankara and Athens, but also between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus, as these are, also, deposited in the offshore of the Cypriot coasts. Starting from these perspectives, solving the disputes would ask for all three Mediterranean states’ involvement.

Furthermore, in an interview for the Deutsche Delle agency, the Middle East expert from the Science and Policy Foundation at the German Institute for International Security and Affairs in Berlin, Stephan Roll, said that this conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea “goes beyond the natural gases reserves and economic areas”. According to him, there are tensions not only between Greece and Turkey, but also between Egypt and Turkey, mostly generated by Cairo’s leadership belief according to which Turkey is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which is partially true, but also that Turkey’s active involvement in Libya, supporting the Tripoli government against general Haftar, supported by Egypt. This scenario was confirmed also by the American expert for Turkey of Wilson Centre think-thank in Washington, which talks about a so-called Ankara “gunboat policy/diplomacy”[2] and thinks that the Greek-Turkish tensions would be fueled by the war in Libya, where “Turkey supports the Tripoli government, meanwhile France, Egypt and Greece are supporting the rebellious general Khalifa Haftar”.

All of these tensions could end up in a massive armed conflict, but we can hardly say if the involved parts are interested in getting to direct confrontation, especially that the result could be unpredictable. Also, UE and NATO do not want for the dispute between the two allies to get worse and turn into an opened conflict. Indeed, there was always escalation moments in the area, however, they were controlled.

Angela Merkel wants to mediate the Greek-Turkish conflict

As for the Eastern Mediterranean Sea crisis, there is a need for a strong mediator to get involved in the dispute over the maritime rights areas and the Libyan conflict. At a first sight, the US did not decide who is supporting in this Libyan conflict. As we already know, there were some breaches between the US and Egypt, as the Cairo officials act similar to Erdogan when it comes to Russian arms procurement, going against Washington’s will. Also, nor in the conflicts between Athens and Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea the US expressed any clear position.

On the other hand, the EU seems to fail in being a good mediator as there is not unified position now in terms of Turkey. For example, France is directly involved in the Greek-Turkish conflict and has a clear stance on Turkey, supporting Greece, meanwhile the other member states are quite circumspect in expressing an official position.

Therefore, unlike the previous crises, all eyes are on Berlin, not Washington, as Germany is seen as an important actor, which can take the mediator role and could convince the rival parts to talk and find peaceful solutions to solve the issues. However, there is a question on whether this option would be acceptable for the involved parts. At a first fight, it seems to be a good choice, as the Germans do not clearly have an interest in the area. But, it is interesting to see how much “potential” Germany has in producing the expected results in this region. There are some doubts, however, given that in its efforts to solve the Libyan conflict, by identifying a political agreement, Germany was not strong enough to influence the interested parts to keep the agreement initiated by the January Berlin Conference.

On short term, however, Berlin was quite effective in peacefully preventing a possible armed conflict between the Turkish and Greek ships in the Aegean Sea, a few weeks ago. Therefore, to calm down the tensions emerged between the two NATO allies, Merkel already talked, confidentially, with both the Turkish president, Recept Tayyip Erdogan, and the Greek prime-minister, Kriakos Mitsotakis, and managed to get a temporary end of the conflict. The talks were also confirmed by the federal minister of defence, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer, who states that a big advantage is that Merkel can talk with both parts and “there is no coincidence that the chancellor interfered”. Also, she stated that both the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Defence one would not hesitate using their contacts to calm the situation in the region.

Also, after the phone talks, Alexis Diakopulos,  the national security adviser of the Greek prime-minister Mitsotakis, stated that the situation is going towards a “détente” thanks to the descouragin effect of the Greek navy and the political pressure of other countries on Turkey, but especially thanks to the “dynamic intervention” of chancellor Merkel.

At least in terms of the German-Turkish relation, it seems that Merkel created its own way of dealing with the Turkish president Erdogan and got his respect, since 2015, during the migrants’ crisis, when the Berlin authorities said it does not agree with imposing sanctions to Turkey, because it would create further issues for Europe.

Currently, Germany, as it is holding the Presidency of the EU Council, wants to step up its efforts to mediate the conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean, both in terms of the misunderstandings between Greece and Turkey and in the situation in Libya. At least in Libya, after the intense efforts of discreet German diplomacy led by Minister Heiko Maas, the two conflicting parties, the internationally recognized Government of the National Accord (GAN) in Tripoli and the Tobruk Chamber of Representatives, announced, on Friday August 21, an armistice to ceasefire and pave the way for elections.

Also on August 20, the German Chancellor honored the invitation of French President Macron to a meeting at his residence, in Fort Brégançon, where, in addition to important issues on the EU agenda, it was addressed the crises issue nearby the European space, wherefore tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are the main challenge. The meeting, the first between two important European leaders after the EU Financial Summit in early July, sought to clarify the common Franco-German position in a series of actions at European level. In this regard, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, showing reason and wisdom, called for more unity within the EU, because only then will the European community be strong, stressing that "the EU must act as a geopolitical actor".

Talking about the Franco-German differences on the Greek-Turkish conflict, the Berlin leader added that "we still have a lot to do" and was disturbed by the fighter jets and two French ships sent for exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, with the obvious aim of supporting Greece, but without consulting allies in this regard. Pointing out that the situation in the region could become critical, Merkel said that "we need stability there, not tension”.

During the talks, Macron agreed to work closely with Germany to resolve the situation, as it happened with other foreign policy crises, and for both countries to use their capabilities in a "complementary" way, having the same goal, protecting the sovereignty of EU Member States. Merkel's response was prompt: "You can send ships, but Germany believes that dialogue between Greece and Turkey must be start again. It is difficult to say which strategy is better. It sounds similar to the conflict in Libya, where Berlin and Paris have also not pursued congruent strategies so far".

One-day visit of the German Foreign Minister to Athens and Ankara

In her mediation efforts regarding the Greek-Turkish conflict, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, on a working visit to Athens and Ankara, on Tuesday (August 25th) to negotiate with her Greek and Turkish counterparts the need to start a dialogue between the two countries bordering the Mediterranean.

After meeting with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, Maas called on Greece and Turkey to discuss the Mediterranean maritime dispute, saying that "what we need now urgently are signs of relaxation and a willingness to engage in dialogue". At the same time, the German foreign minister warned of the danger of a military escalation in the region. To that end, he stated that "the current situation is similar to playing with fire, and a spark, no matter how small, can lead to a catastrophe" and no one would be interested in a military confrontation between NATO allies, which are at the same time neighbors.

Moreover, Maas wanted to add that a "binding and peaceful settlement" of the disputes between the parties must be reached, which can only be achieved through "serious and solution-oriented" discussions between the two countries. But this, according to the German official, only if all destructive actions will cease and challenges will be avoided. At the same time, the German minister assured Greece of "the full solidarity of Germany and the whole EU” in its dispute with Turkey.

On his turn, after talks with Minister Heiko Maas, Greek Minister Dendias called on the EU to impose sanctions on Turkey because, according to him, "Turkey is a neo-Ottoman ideology and pursues unlimited expansionism" in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, he said that Greece will protect its sovereign rights and the country's borders, which are also the EU's borders. In this regard, Athens is ready to enter into a dialogue with Ankara, but only on condition that the threat in Turkey ceases.

After the visit to Athens, Heiko Maas traveled to Ankara the same day to discuss the same delicate topic of events in the Eastern Mediterranean and with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Cavusoglu. Following the talks, the Turkish foreign minister said Turkey was ready to negotiate with Greece in the Mediterranean dispute, but any dialogue should not include some Greek preconditions. He added that "we will do whatever is necessary without hesitation". Cavusoglu's statements were preceded by a statement by President Erdogan's spokesman on Hürriyet on the morning of August 25, stating that "Turkey is practically ready for dialogue, but without making any concessions".

Germany has opted for this discussions format, because unlike phone conversations, face-to-face meetings draw public’s attention and thus increase the pressure on the parties to the conflict. The timing of the German foreign minister's trip to Greece and Turkey also seems to have been carefully chosen, as relations with Turkey represent one of the topics on the agenda of the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin, on 27-28 August.

In its mediation effort of the Greek-Turkish conflict, Germany is trying to use this time to calm down the spirits. Therefore, according to Berlin, as long as the negotiations are developing, research over the Mediterranean Sea gases should stop, and the military drills where the interested parts show off their “muscles” should also come to an end. Also, the German offer remains open and, given that Germany holds the EU Council Presidency, discussion on the modernization of the UE-Turkey custom union, that the Turkish president Erdogan asks for for a while, may continue. On the other hand, EU has a difficult position in the Mediterranean conflict and the situation cannot be solved as Greece would want to, as the juridical situation in the region is also complicated. Furthermore, EU needs Ankara in the refugees’ issue, given that Erdogan has threatened several times this spring that he will leave migrants to cross the border towards the West. Therefore, the best option for Germany and its European allies is to focus on calming the situation in the region.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] Zone (EEZ) for coastal countries that extends beyond the territorial waters of a country. In this 200-mile zone, a state has the exclusive right to exploit natural resources. If the coast of another country is closer, the center line applies. The Greek islands off the Turkish coast greatly reduce the Turkish EEZ. Turkey considers that the islands do not have an EEZ and therefore considers that the exploitation of its gas is legitimate. https://www.dw.com/de/türkei-setzt-auf-vermittlung-im-gasstreit/a-54571934