Under different circumstances, an intervention by Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel to thwart Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s actions might have been enough for a de-escalation of the growing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The German leader might be the only European leader with actual leverage over the Turkish president, mainly due to the bilateral trade relationships that the two countries enjoy and the large Turkish community in Germany. However, in this still-unfolding crisis, even a German intervention has been unsuccessful.
Earlier this month, Merkel had a tense phone conversation with Erdogan in which the latter said that Turkey would make full use of a NAVTEX, a navigational and meteorological warning that is usually issued for research operations, for the Turkish exploration vessel, the Oruc Reis, while it set sail for the Eastern Mediterranean until August 23.
Erdogan told Merkel that Turkey would be willing to restore its communications channel with Athens only after the August 23rd NAVTEX date expired. Merkel had offered to facilitate a three-sided phone call of the three countries’ diplomatic advisors.
For Germany, the route for de-escalation was clear – Greece and Turkey should return to the table for an unmediated dialogue, a process that has unfolded over many rounds of talks since the early 2000s. The last round of “exploratory talks”, as they are called in the diplomatic argot, took place in March 2016. The process was interrupted for various reasons, including an alleged coup d’ etat in Turkey in July of that year, which drastically changed the nature of the Turkish presidency.
After having told Merkel that he was willing to reopen talks with Greece, one would expect that Erdogan would have decided to recall the Oruc Reis, and the accompanying vessels of the Turkish Naval Forces, in effort to improve the overall climate to conduct talks. This, however, proved not to be the case.
Late on August 25, Turkey renewed the NAVTEX and extended the Oruc Reis‘ mission for several days. Though it was a short extension, the date was far from coincidental as on August 26, the Greek Parliament ratified a deal with Egypt for a partial delimitation of the maritime zones between the countries, which overlaps the internationally unrecognized Memorandum of Understanding that the Turks signed with the Ankara-backed Libyan government in Tripoli.
At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement about the delimitation of the maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. The main difference between the two agreements are that the Greek-Egyptian deal follows all rules set out by International Law and will be supported by the United Nations; the Turkish-Libyan deal has only been ratified by the Turkish parliament. Not even the Libyan government, Erdogan’s ally in the Libyan Civil War, has given it the green light. For its part, the UN has flatly rejected the deal, saying it does not abide by international law.
Athens has repeatedly described the Turkish-Libyan Memorandum of Understand as illegal under international law, a position that has been met with hostile irritation by the Turks, who were incensed by the timing of the Greek-Egyptian deal.
In Athens, there is a deep conviction that Turkey is trying to use the opportunity presented by the coronavirus crisis, when most Western governments are busy dealing with the pandemic, to unleash Erdogan’s irredentist plans for the broader region of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Greek government, however, still hopes for a de-escalation. Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a Parliament address on August 26 that it is a trait of Greek history to offer “an olive branch” to adversaries, adding, “Once the provocations stop, we can talk”.
Mitsotakis has repeatedly signaled that Athens is fully in favor of returning to “exploratory talks”, however, Greece is not will to discuss any issue with the authoritarian Erdogan regime while being blackmailed.
The ball is now in Turkey’s court. Even President Donald Trump, whose isolationist policies have largely sidelined the US in international affairs, called both Mitsotakis and Erdogan on August 26 evening to discuss the situation. Trump is known to be on particularly close terms with Erdogan, according to his former advisor John Bolton, and the fact he is now paying attention to the rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean is significant.
Germany is, at the same time, again trying to persuade Erdogan to begin a process of de-escalation. Undoubtedly, the recent mission by Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas to Athens and Ankara was a failure. Maas failed to persuade the Turkish side to change its approach, while his counterpart from Ankara, Mevlut Cavusoglu, grabbing the opportunity to lash out against Greece during the press briefing, which left Maas standing by his side in despair as Maas realized that his appeals for diplomacy and dialogue had just been thrown into the trash bin.
Within this framework, Greece is expecting a tougher European stance against Turkey during the September 24 EUCO Summit. As Greek sources have put it, except for the sanctions that are on the table for Turkey, the European Union should at this point carefully examine its strategic approach regarding the role of Turkey in the region and the entire framework of European-Turkish relations.