As Europe Weakens, Turkey Is on the Rise

What is happening in the Mediterranean is not only a conflict between Greece and Turkey — it is also a European problem.
Ali Demirdas, Turkey Greece Mediterranean standoff, France German relations, France Libya policy, Italy Libya policy, Italian interest in Libya, French interests in the Middle East, Europe refugee crisis, Nagorno Karabakh crisis, Turkey EU relations

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September 29, 2020 07:19 EDT

The horrific experience of World War II compelled European leaders to establish a supranational organization that is now the European Union, which, if successful, would create among its members, especially between Germany and France, an unbreakable bond, preventing the otherwise “savage continent” from destroying itself once again as it did many times before 1945. While the adoption of the common currency, the euro, after 1999 is cited as the epitome of European financial unity, when it comes to foreign policy, the EU itself is far from united.

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The spat between EU candidate Turkey and EU member Greece over the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the eastern Mediterranean has exposed this intra-EU discord. Greece’s repeated calls to Brussels for solidarity have mostly been ignored, and France’s relentless efforts to create a solid anti-Turkish bloc have yielded nothing but some rhetorical support for Greece. France sees the growing Turkish influence in Libya as a grave threat to its economic interests in West Africa and the Sahel. Due to this perceived Turkish threat, Paris has been doing everything in its power to sabotage it, including throwing unconditional support behind Greece.

Europe’s Locomotive

The Greek frustration with the EU peaked at an all-time high at the Foreign Affairs Council on August 14, when member states Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Bulgaria and Malta vetoed the request by Athens to sanction Ankara. In retaliation, the Greek Cypriots blocked an EU joint statement on sanctions against Belarus following the violent suppression of anti-government protests by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. On September 10, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the MED7 countries — Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain — on the island of Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon, hoping to mount pressure on Turkey, only to be disappointed that the leaders of Spain, Italy, Malta and Portugal avoided inflammatory remarks and emphasized the importance of a dialogue with Ankara.

In fact, the day after the summit, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to express Spain’s willingness to enhance bilateral relations. On the same day, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio and Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu discussed on the phone “the matters related to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.” Two days after the Corsica summit, the Maltese Minister of EU Foreign Affairs Evarist Bartolo met with Cavusoglu in Turkey’s Mediterranean resort town of Antalya.

Macron’s European partners have disappointed him before. France claimed that on June 10, Turkish warships locked their weapons systems on to a French frigate, the Courbet, which was part of NATO’s Sea Guardian monitoring mission. As a knee-jerk reaction to this incident, France suspended its naval operations in the Mediterranean. France took the issue to NATO, which Macron has inconveniently called “braindead” in the past, and whose majority of members are also part of the EU. To Macron’s dismay, only eight of the 30 NATO members backed France’s claims against Turkey, which French Defense Minister Florence Parly described as “serious and unacceptable.” Later, NATO announced that the probe into the incident was “inconclusive.”  

So why is Europe so divided when it comes to Turkey? Why have France and Greece failed to create European unanimity against Turkey? The answer lies in the fact that the changing regional political and economic realities are forcing the European states to pursue their own individual agendas just like they did in the early 20th century, heralding the demise of the ideal to create the United States of Europe. Simply put, because of their vested interest in Ankara’s handling of the refugee crisis as well as their uneasiness about an ascendant France in the Mediterranean, some EU member states choose to align with Turkey rather than defend Greece’s maritime claims, severely undermining Paris’ effort to curb Ankara’s ambitions.  

Germany, the locomotive of the European Union, is very concerned about the continuous influx of refugees into Europe, which has already begun to disrupt the financial, social and political make-up of the continent. For Berlin, Turkey’s ability to accommodate more than 4 million refugees it currently shelters is paramount to saving the contracting EU economies further stricken by COVID-19. Also, not angering Erdogan in this gloomy atmosphere is much more important for German Chancellor Angela Merkel than to mount a battle for Greece’s declared maritime borders in the far eastern stretches of the Mediterranean.

Merkel’s motivation to get along with Erdogan upsets Macron, who feels the need to contain Turkey in Libya, West Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Macron sees Brexit and the receding US influence as a historical opportunity to assert France’s role as the leader on the European continent, which in turn may herald Franco-German frictions. He repeatedly degraded the importance of NATO as a common defense mechanism at a time when Merkel is alarmed by US President Donald Trump’s decision to considerably cut the number of American troops in Germany. Macron has frequently criticized Merkel for allowing Germany’s much-needed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline into Europe as he believes it will increase the European reliance on Russia.

This Gaullist approach has not only irked Germany, but also raised concern with France’s Mediterranean neighbors, Italy, and Spain, who have historically viewed an ascendant France with suspicion. Hence their tacit support for Turkey, France’s current geopolitical perceived arch-rival. 

Italy vs. France

The Italian resentment toward France goes back to the 2011 French and NATO-led military intervention in Libya, which toppled Muammar Gaddafi. Italy sees the subsequent growing instability in Libya as a threat to national security as migrants, not only from Libya but also from sub-Saharan Africa, began to pour onto Italian shores. The Italians believed that Gaddafi’s iron-fist rule over Libya acted as a barrier between Italy and the more unstable and deprived parts of Africa.  

The current migrant issue has severely hurt the Franco-Italian relations. Both sides have repeatedly summoned each other’s ambassadors, a serious sign of friction, criticizing the measures each refused to take. In June 2018, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned France’s ambassador to Rome after Macron harshly criticized Italy’s refusal to accept the migrant ship Aquarius carrying more than 600 people.

In June 2019, the current Italian foreign minister and then-deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, lambasted the French immigration policy by saying that “If today people are leaving, it’s because certain European countries, chief among them France, never stopped colonizing dozens of African countries. France prints the currency, the colonial franc, in dozens of African countries, and with this currency, they finance the French debt . . . If France did not have the African colonies, she would be the world’s 15th economic power, but she’s among the first because of what she’s doing in Africa.” Di Maio even called for EU sanctions against France. The row escalated to a point where France recalled its ambassador to Italy in February 2019, a move unprecedented since the Second World War. The acrimony with France has prompted Rome to side with Ankara in this latest diplomatic spat.

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Italy’s support for Turkey in Libya seems to have paid off. After Turkey’s successful military campaign against the French-backed General Khalifa Haftar earlier this year, a senior European diplomat told the Financial Times: “Let’s be honest, Turkey stopped the fall of Tripoli. Without their intervention, it would have been a humanitarian disaster.” The influx of those running fleeing Haftar’s retribution would have severely crippled Italy.  

An ascendant France in the Mediterranean basin also threatens Italy’s economic interests. Italy had considerable business stakes in Libya under Gaddafi, whose removal from power severely jeopardized them. The Italian energy giant ENI first entered the oil-rich country in 1959 and had a continuous presence throughout the 1980s, even when the West snubbed the Gaddafi regime for its links to terrorism. Before the French-led military intervention, Operation Harmattan, in 2011, Libya accounted for 15% of ENI’s total global hydrocarbons output, with oil production at 108,000 barrels per day and natural gas production at 9.4 billion cubic meters.

Today, a number of lucrative oil projects are at stake for ENI, including the Bouri oil field, the largest offshore field in the Mediterranean Sea, located immediately off the coast of Libya. This area is controlled by the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord. Considering that ENI’s biggest challenger for the Libyan oil and gas is the French oil giant Total, Rome has naturally supported Fayez al-Sarraj’s Turkey-led coalition against Khalifa Haftar’s French-backed Libyan National Army. This too explains why Rome is reluctant to join France and Greece in imposing sanctions on Turkey.  

British Considerations

Historically speaking, France’s growing ambitions in the Mediterranean have triggered British suspicion. For instance, it was British support for the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century that facilitated the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte by the Turks in Egypt and Syria, which also safeguarded British regional interests. Just as it was then, today Turkey has become an important part of the UK’s geopolitical considerations, particularly in the post-Brexit era. London has manifested its support for Ankara on various occasions. For example, the UK, which has strategic Akrotiri and Dhekelia military bases on the island of Cyprus, openly rejected the Greek Cypriots’ request for cooperation against Turkey. Angered by this refusal, the Greek Cypriots turned to France.

With regard to the Turkey-France naval incident, UK Prime minister Boris Johnson clearly sided with Turkey by publicly stating, “I do not give much credence to France’s view.” As a display of solidarity, the British frigate HMS Argyll and Turkish TCG Giresun held an exclusive naval training exercise in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean the day after the French-led MED7 summit in Corsica. 

The UK’s desire to cooperate with Turkey in the Mediterranean is also reflected on the smallest EU member, Malta, which shares a maritime border with Libya. Although it declared its independence from the UK in 1964, Malta’s foreign policy still is heavily influenced by London. In Libya, the Maltese government has openly declared its support for the Turkey-backed al-Sarraj administration. Moreover, as a blow to France’s efforts to prevent Turkey from sending weapons to Libya, Malta vetoed EU funding for Operation Irini meant to enforce an arms embargo.

Malta’s support for Turkey in the Mediterranean partially stems from the anti-French sentiment that prevails in society. Prominent Maltese broadcaster Charles Xuereb, the author of “France in the Maltese Collective Memory: Perceptions, Perspectives, Identities After Bonaparte in British Malta,” states that “Napoleon’s slaughter of thousands of Maltese and the heavy pillaging of the island created a Maltese collective memory which blocks anything French but sees the British as their saviors.” It is only natural for Malta to throw its support behind Turkey, which has confronted France throughout the region. 

Romantic Ideas

Where do we go from here? The romantic idea of a united Europe where prosperity, democracy and solidarity reign supreme is becoming increasingly obsolete. The aging population, the influx of refugees and the rising populist far right, the COVID-19 pandemic and the abysmal state of eurozone economies, which is increasing the north-south divide, have all but weakened the idea of a shared future for the Europeans.

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The weakening of Europe is happening at a time when Turkey seems to be on the rise. EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell stated earlier this month: “Europe is facing a situation in which we can say that the old Empires are coming back, at least three of them: Russia, China, and Turkey; big empires of the past who are coming back with an approach on their immediate neighborhood, globally, which represent for us a new environment. And Turkey is one of these elements that change our environment.” 

What is happening in the Mediterranean is not only a conflict between Greece and Turkey — it is also a European problem. Turkey’s ascendancy in the region should be expected to accelerate the fracturing of Europe, where each state is increasingly preoccupied with its own problems, forming competing alliances against one another.

The latest addition to this chessboard is the renewed fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Each side is accusing the other of causing the flare-up, but according to UN Security Council resolutions, Armenia is illegally occupying 20% of Azeri territory. In this conflict too, as in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Turkey holds the key. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan has already led to heavy Armenian casualties. The Azeri-Armenian conflict will only strengthen Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Europe even more, disincentivizing Brussels to take measures against Ankara.  

The idea of a united Europe is becoming more of an unattainable dream each day. The question now arises whether President Erdogan will be the one to deal the final blow to that idea.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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