While the world media is busy covering the coronavirus pandemic, the conflict between Greece and Turkey has sharply escalated in the Eastern Mediterranean. The reason was Ankara’s decision to send the research vessel Oruc Reis to the shores of the Greek island of Kastelorizo for the so-called “seismic studies” to explore for gas fields. The works should take place from July 21 to August 2. In turn, the Greek authorities stated that they are not ready to tolerate Turkey’s actions, since the exploration of deposits takes place in the water area belonging to the exclusive economic zone of Greece. Now the armed forces of both countries are put on high alert.
DW spoke about the potential and consequences of this conflict with Günter Seufert, an expert on Turkey and an expert at the Berlin Science and Politics Foundation (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik).
DW: According to unofficial data, the decision of Turkish President Erdogan to explore gas fields near the Greek island almost turned into a military conflict. Allegedly, only thanks to the intervention of the FRG Chancellor, an open clash was avoided. Do you think President Erdogan was ready to start hostilities?
Gunther Seufert: We can assume that Erdogan will continue his policy of targeted military operations. Just as the Turkish president ignores the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus, drilling there to extract gas, he will ignore the interests of Greece. But whether in the end it will come to military clashes depends on how Greece behaves – whether it offers Turkey negotiations or not. In addition, it depends on the position of the EU, and most importantly – the United States. After all, Greece and Turkey are both NATO member states, and the leading members of the alliance will need to intervene in the situation and offer their mediation services.
– However, so far the US and NATO have distanced themselves from the conflict, and the European Union has limited itself to political statements …
– The EU threatened with sanctions, but the matter did not go beyond words. EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell is now trying to bring both sides to the negotiating table. And they have something to talk about. Both countries occupy rather maximalistic positions. (…) Kastelorizo is located right off the coast of Turkey. But, according to Athens, despite the great length of the Turkish coast, Turkey can lay claim in these waters only for an exclusive economic zone of a rather small size. In Ankara, in turn, they believe that the islands, in principle, do not give the right to an exclusive economic zone. This disagreement can only be resolved through negotiations.
Meanwhile, the United States is in a difficult position in this conflict. On the one hand, they have a lot of disagreements with Turkey. Suffice it to mention the purchase by Ankara of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. On the other hand, the United States, with the support of Turkey, is trying to prevent the growth of Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Washington has not yet decided what is of higher priority – to confront Russia or discipline Turkey. Erdogan takes advantage of this lack of a unified line, as well as the indecision of the European Union.
– This half of the year Germany holds the presidency in the EU structures. In this regard, the German Chancellor has already stated that Berlin will make every effort to ensure that the European Union develops a clear policy towards Turkey. Is this possible now, after the aggravation of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean?
– It’s getting harder every day. In principle, the European Union had the right framework conditions in relations with Turkey, namely, a “road map” for Turkey’s entry into the EU. This process was clearly formalized, or rather, tied to the implementation of democratic reforms by Turkey, which was supported by all the states of the European Union.
But this process of rapprochement ended in failure, both because of Ankara’s policy and because of the position of Brussels. Now certain topics are coming to the fore – the issue of refugees, energy, the role of Turkey in Syria and Libya. In these matters, each of the EU countries pursues its own national interests. Under these conditions, it is extremely difficult to agree on a common European policy towards Turkey. Moreover, a common strategy is very important right now – that is, when Ankara is behaving more and more aggressively, using refugees as a way of pressure (on the EU. – Ed.) and violating the exclusive economic zones of the EU member states.
– 26 years ago, then US President Bill Clinton managed at the last minute to stop an armed clash between Greece and Turkey over the island of Immiya (Kardak). Last Tuesday, July 21, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stopped the military escalation. Does this mean that Berlin has begun to take over functions that were previously performed by Washington?
– Quite possible. The United States today is increasingly concentrating on other regions, primarily the Pacific region, and the confrontation with China. At the same time, the European Union demonstrates its inability to work out a common European position on foreign policy issues, primarily on the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and on relations with Turkey. In the end, the signing of an agreement on refugees with Ankara is the merit of Germany. In a fragmented European Union, Berlin must take on a leadership role – although, in my opinion, the German government is extremely reluctant to do so. Berlin is more likely to be in the ranks of other EU members than to lead this organization. But I believe that Germany simply has no other choice but to take the initiative.
– On the very day when the Oruc Reis was supposed to leave the port of Antalya, the first prayer was held in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for the first time in many decades. That’s a coincidence?
– No, it’s not a coincidence. President Erdogan’s goal is to revive “Greater Turkey”. This is not about Turkey, which Ataturk turned to face the West, but Turkey, modeled after the Ottoman Empire. We are told: we are a new regional power and we are taking the place that was vacated by the US withdrawal and the weakness of the European Union, and we support Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. The practical consequences of this policy are the military build-up of the Turkish army and the militarization of foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. And the symbolic continuation of this policy is precisely such events as the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.