At the height of the Classical Era, the Mediterranean Sea was dubbed a ‘Greek lake’, as the mighty Greek naval vessels roamed the valuable commercial routes of the known world back then. Testament to this are the numerous Greek colonies-cities dotted on the Mediterranean shores, which eventually grew to become Europe’s most important port cities. Thousands of years later, in 2020, Turkey – a rather late arrival in the region – wants to assert its own dominance of the Med by setting in motion its grandiose plans for a ‘Blue Homeland’ (Mavi Vatan). This entails the extension of Turkish maritime influence in the eastern Mediterranean and the seas that surround her shores, which would allow Turkey to control vessel movements, natural gas reservoirs, and underwater energy pipes. This undoubtedly irredentist dream is a major headache for Turkey’s neighbours across the pond, namely Greece and Cyprus, as it lays claim to territories belonging to the Hellenic Republic and the Republic of Cyprus – which are recognised as such by the international community. One would think that after so many decades of constant border redrawing, European frontiers would have been largely fixed by now. Apparently, this is not the case.
At the heart of this renewed tug of war, lies the idyllic Greek island of Kastelorizo; a tiny piece of land right next to the Turkish coast, which also happens to be the single Greek territory closest to Cypriot shores. Although the island was assigned to Greece a considerable time ago – at the 1947 Paris peace treaties – Turkey finds this difficult to swallow. The status of Kastelorizo as an island isolated from the Greek mainland and its proximity to the Turkish coast have been employed by Turkey to justify its provocative military activities in the area and the blockade of the island by Turkish naval vessels. The placement of military warships in the sea between the Dodecanese islands and Cyprus – hijacking what are essentially the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Greece and Cyprus – has invited a reciprocal display of force by Greece, through the unleashing of the full might of the Hellenic Navy. The situation is extremely tense and eruptive, and any ‘wrong’ or ‘accidental’ manoeuvre can easily escalate into a fully-fledged war between the two NATO powers.
The EU: an honest broker?
Up until now, other than a verbal show of solidarity, the EU fell short of adopting any more punitive measures against Turkey. The stance maintained by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP), Mr Josep Borrell, has also been criticised in Greece and Cyprus for not displaying the appropriate tour de force against Erdogan’s bullying.
Although the criticisms laid against the bloc for not doing enough to curb the escalating Turkish aggression have some basis in truth, this is not entirely the institution’s fault. The foreign policy competences of the EU are extremely limited by treaty and the European External Action Service, headed by Mr Borrell, is not equipped with the necessary toolset to launch a ‘counterattack’. The foreign policy domain is one of the areas where member states have hesitated to delegate more power to the supranational core, insisting that the capacity to conduct foreign relations remains one of the last bastions of national sovereignty. It is fair to say that the office of the HR/VP is restrained by default and any action taken would unavoidably have to align with the whims of the 27 as a whole.
The Cypriot Foreign Minister, in particular, has capitalised on the fact that the EU’s credibility is at stake because Turkey’s provocations – branded as hybrid warfare – are not directed against third states but two of the EU’s very own. Article 42(7) of the Treaty of the European Union, commonly known as the mutual defence clause, affirms that EU countries are obliged to assist a fellow member state that has become “a victim of armed aggression on its territory”. Greece and Cyprus have been keen to pursue this avenue from the start of the crisis. Their pleas have not fallen on deaf ears, as France was quick to pledge its allegiance to the two Mediterranean countries, adopting a display of solidarity dressed in military colours.
At the time of writing (August 28th 2020), however, a noticeable change in direction has taken place, with the EU foreign ministers having agreed on a list of sanctions against Turkey in the event that it does not de-escalate its actions in the East Med. The first phase of sanctions is directed exclusively at Turkey’s energy sector and companies involved in illegal drillings, which are expected to receive final approval at the next EU summit on 24 September in Brussels. Nonetheless, as strongly pointed out in political science literature, the efficacy of sanctions is disputable, as it relies heavily on external factors and equal commitment by all participants. For example, the participation of all countries in the sanctions programme is by no means guaranteed – especially when it involves 27 distinct states with different vested interests in the Turkish economy. Critics will also be quick to point out that the scope of the sanctions is too limited and might not have any tractable impact on the Turkish economy. But this is only the first step and the mere promise of more and wider sanctions might act as a deterrent in its own right. Recent events strongly point towards the conclusion that pure rhetoric will have no effect on Erdogan and his cronies. Time will only tell, and this might be sooner than anticipated.