Greco-Turkish maritime disputes, couched in competing narratives of national sovereignties, are nothing new. Plus, it has also long been the case that the two sides cannot agree on a framework within which to address their disputes. In spite of the intermittent flare ups, these disputes have traditionally taken the form of a smouldering yet frozen conflict. Despite the relative respite in the tension since early 2021, this only came after a period of high tension in the Eastern Mediterranean between 2016 and 2020. On top of these tensions, the crisis arguably appeared to be more perilous during this period than any other point in time. This raises the question of what was so particular about the crisis during this specific time.
The crisis was aggravated and complicated by two geopolitical developments related to energy and geopolitics: gas explorations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Libyan conflict. Two systemic changes also made this period more perilous: the power vacuum created by the US downsizing its regional role in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the loss of the EU accession framework in Turkish-European/Greek relations. This emerging void (left by the US) has set off a scramble for power and influence in the Mediterranean and Middle East that should serve as a wakeup call for the European Union to play a larger role in the de-escalation of the crisis. To state it differently, the traditional sources of friction between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus now dovetail with another set of interlocking geopolitical tensions and energy disputes in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and a group of countries including France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As such, not only has the number of countries involved in the crisis grown, but its scope has also broadened to include new issues, including recent energy discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean and the ever-sprawling Libyan imbroglio - and these are all happening at a time when the US is downsizing its regional footprint.
However, there has recently been a pervasive feeling that the worst has been averted in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis as it has once again morphed into a manageable crisis. Several factors account for this largely immature conclusion. Joe Biden’s election in the US, the convergence between Europe and the US on the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey's deepening economic crisis, and the prospect of economic sanctions in the case of continuing exploration activities in contested waters have all contributed to the de-escalation in the crisis. Plus, the recent de-escalation between Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, and Israel also informs this premature reading.
However, despite de-escalation, the essence of the crisis is far from being resolved. Any new exploration activities could escalate the tension. Therefore, more needs to be done, particularly from the EU’s part, to address the crisis.
What to do?
Talk of solving the crisis is attractive yet not realistic at this stage, particularly within a short span of time. As indicated above, there is not just one crisis to be solved, but rather multiple crises. But what is crucial is that the current de-escalation phase in the crisis continues. The most important element of de-escalation has been the halting of drilling and exploration activities in contested waters. This needs to continue if any negotiations between the rival sides are to commence in earnest.
To sustain de-escalation, a set of international meetings and conferences could serve this purpose. Turkey has previously called for a conference of the eastern Mediterranean’s littoral countries to discuss their disputes, while European Council President Charles Michel has called for an international conference. At this stage, the latter, comprised of participants from countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean plus Europe and NATO, could be a good start to dealing with the crisis within a multilateral framework.
By pointing to the perceived ‘failure’ of the Berlin conference on Libya, some might cast doubt on the usefulness and effectiveness of an international conference on the eastern Mediterranean. However, unlike in Libya, where all major players work through proxies, the main actors in the eastern Mediterranean are on the ground. Because no one can hide behind the guise of proxies if they cause an incident, an international conference is more likely to be effective. Relatedly, in the eastern Mediterranean, no party has any interest in perpetuating the conflict. All sides have previously escalated the situation with the hope that the other parties will back down and give them a way out. An international conference would therefore provide a face-saving exit from the crisis.
Greece and Turkey have already agreed to establish a de-confliction mechanism at the NATO level. This has been a welcome development, which significantly decreases — though does not eliminate — the risk of an incident occurring between them. Though there are no exploration activities in contested waters at present, this mechanism needs to be maintained as a safety option against any future incidents.
All the above-mentioned measures are geared toward maintaining de-escalation in the conflict and, although de-escalation is essential, it should not be the end goal. Rather, it should be a strategy to facilitate negotiations and provide room for more imaginative policy alternatives.
Advance a region-wide cooperative framework
As long as the current eastern Mediterranean crisis remains unaddressed, the region will be at risk of new crises. Moreover, any conflict provides an opening for actors such as Russia to step in. Europe therefore needs to advance a more imaginative foreign policy and broader regional vision. In fact, during the current crisis, there have been references to Europe’s past visionary achievements in the form of calls for a new Schuman Plan or a new Barcelona Process. While a Schuman Plan indicates a visionary approach to an intractable crisis at hand, invoking a new Barcelona Process implies a broader region-to-region dialogue between Europe and southern Mediterranean countries, with a positive agenda for the future. We sorely need such a visionary and region-wide framework in dealing with the Eastern Mediterranean crisis.
At the core of these proposals is the idea that the eastern Mediterranean should be treated as a shared space and that its strategic resources—oil and gas—should advance the cause of cooperation, rather than conflict, among its littoral states. While there are many different ways to achieve these lofty goals, they all require Europe to develop a geopolitical vision and commitment.
To be more concrete, though gas discoveries triggered the recent tension, the crisis is essentially political. Despite early optimism, it now appears that the gas reserves are smaller and less lucrative than expected, putting the outlined eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline project into Europe out of reach. On top of this, European energy transition and decarbonization goals mean that the commercial value of gas will further diminish going forward, which could potentially open a avenue for conversation between the EU and the eastern Mediterranean’s littoral states on energy transition and decarbonization in the European neighborhood.
For this to happen, the EU needs to advance a major decarbonization vision, along with a plan and commitment to implement it. At present, given the division within Europe and disagreement among Middle Eastern states about the nature of the regional order, such a grand plan might not resonate widely. That said, even a discussion on the subject among officials could shift the nature of the conversation on the eastern Mediterranean toward a more cooperative mode, thereby helping to reduce tensions.
Finally, the EU should either try to facilitate Turkey's accession into the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum or devise a trilateral framework wherein the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum countries, the EU, and Turkey could explore ways to manage their disputes and cooperate. Regardless, the EU’s road to becoming a geopolitical actor in this scenario entails navigating the choppy waters of the Eastern Mediterranean imbroglio. At this stage, against the backdrop of a larger regional de-escalation, a flare-up in the tension, similar to the ones that occurred in 2016-20, is unlikely. However, new exploration or drilling activities by any side in the contested waters could easily trigger a new tense period in the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the seeming calm should not deceive anyone: the Eastern Mediterranean conflict remains ripe for re-escalation.
Note: This is an excerpt from a policy report written by the author for Brookings Institution, Doha Center. Click here for the full report.