As the coronavirus pandemic starts to recede, the European Union and the United States may need to bring Ankara and Athens from brink of confrontation to the negotiation table, wrote Charles Ellinas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
While Cyprus and Greece must continue to protect their maritime rights with support from the EU and the United States in the face of Turkey’s efforts in the eastern Mediterranean, European and U.S. officials are already calling for improved relations, Ellinas said in an article he penned for Cyprus Mail newspaper.
The U.S. State Department last week called Turkey’s efforts “provocative and unhelpful,” Ellinas said, and cited U.S. Undersecretary for Energy Resources Francis Fannon as saying Turkey’s maritime with Libya could not affect the existing rights of Greece or other states in the region.
The European Council on Foreign Relations in a recent report said EU states not directly involved in conflicts with Turkey should help improve relations, he added, and that European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas visited Turkey to demonstrate a commitment to “continuing engagement and cooperation with Turkey” through dialogue.
Turkey and Libya signed a maritime deal last November to establish the two countries as maritime neighbours, extending Turkey’s territorial waters to include parts of Greek islands and Cyprus.
Turkey maintains that it has a right to explore and drill for oil and natural gas in parts of the Mediterranean that overlap with Greece’s and Cyprus’s exclusive economic zones, a main point of tension with the European countries.
With the Libyan deal and its subsequent exploration efforts, Ellinas said, Turkey aims to create facts in support of its claims of territorial waters and rights over hydrocarbon deposits in the Mediterranean it says it has created, “perhaps in preparation for eventual negotiations.”
The country “cannot enforce this position merely through force,” and its “distorted interpretation” of maritime law will not prevail when negotiations eventually come, he wrote.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has called Turkey’s actions a “provocation,” and declared that Greece was ready to deal with it.
Following a meeting last week with Fayez al Sarraj, leader of Libya’s U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the two countries plan to further develop cooperation.
Libya has served as both a gateway into North Africa, and a domestic diversion to the hit Turkey’s economy took from the coronavirus pandemic, Ellinas said.
Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) has applied for licences to drill within what is internationally recognised as Cyprus’s territorial waters, and the Turkish Energy Ministry approved the applications last week, while the Foreign Ministry published a map depicting almost no territorial waters for Cyprus and that included plans for exploration very close to several Greek islands.
Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez last week said Turkey could begin oil exploration in three or four months, based on the Libya deal.
Turkey maintains that the deal also gives the country authority over the eastern Mediterranean pipeline project by Greece, Cyprus and Israel as the project crosses the territorial waters the country has laid claim to.
Israel’s ambassador to Turkey Roey Gilad last month wrote an article for a Turkish news site and called for normalisation.
“We don’t have to agree on every issue to normalise our relations,” Gilad wrote. “As can be seen in Syria, (a normal level of relations) could benefit both Turkey and Israel in more successfully facing similar hardships.”
Developments in the region could signal an improvement in Israeli-Turkish relations, Jerusalem Post commented two days later.
However, Erdoğan’s increased opposition to Israel’s approach to Palestine is not making things easy, Ellinas said, adding that the two countries’ relationship would inevitably come up next week when Greek, Cypriot and Israeli prime ministers will hold a meeting.
Meanwhile, Italy meanwhile refused to condemn Turkey’s efforts in the eastern Mediterranean and to sign the agreement for the joint pipeline.
“These developments show that both Israel and Italy can be ‘friends’ but cannot be relied-upon – especially where it involves their national interests,” Ellinas said.