Eastern Mediterranean Energy Disputes: Time for Germany to step in

Yazar: Yrd. Doç. Dr. Mustafa Çıraklı – 29.09.2020

While the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic meant a brief pause in the fast-paced energy politics of the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s NAVTEX in July, that it was sending its Oruç Reis research ship to carry out a seismic survey in the Southeastern Aegean Sea claimed by Turkey and Greece as their sovereign continental shelf have recently raised the tensions to a new height, prompting fears of a major confrontation between the two NATO allies.

Ankara’s activities in the region are based on a maritime agreement signed in 2019 with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj, that allowed Turkey to re-draw the EEZ and continental shelf zone boundaries within the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Turkey-Libya deal is widely dismissed by Greece and the de-facto Greek Cypriot-controlled Republic of Cyprus (together with France and Egypt)  as “null and void”. For Turkey however, the two countries’ own territorial claims are groundless, with Turkish officials accusing Athens of trying to exclude Turkey and their Turkish-Cypriot kinsmen from the benefits of the oil and gas findings in the region.

Until now, the EU has been engaged in the region through the activities of certain member states, particularly France. And while France’s focus is unrelentingly on its volatile relationship with Turkey, worsened by Paris’ waning influence in Libya, the EU’s cohesion hinges on upgrading relations with Ankara not least for the latter’s role in deterring new waves of refugees and economic migrants amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Germany, which has taken over the bloc’s rotating presidency in July, could use this opportunity to provide the leadership to solve once for all the problems that are found in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In terms of foreign policy leadership, France and the UK were traditionally the dominant European players and have had considerable influence on Europe’s role in international affairs. Yet in the last decade, Germany is widely seen to have emerged as the EU’s most influential member state. More is now expected of Germany also in the area of security and defence policies, largely as a result of the dynamics set in motion by the Brexit vote and the Trump administration in Washington.

It is true that Germany’s leadership in the EU is based on the constant interaction and consensus-seeking between Berlin and its EU partners, France in particular. But this makes the German leadership in EU foreign and security policy a social phenomenon and an important counterweight to France’s often hawkish approach.

Indeed, Germany’s strength lies primarily in its tradition of diplomatic engagement on the European continent and beyond through what can be described as minilateralism. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, reiterated Germany’s adherence to this diplomatic and cooperative approach in her speech to theWorld Economic Forum, in January 2019: “I think we should understand our national interest in a way that we think about the interests of others and from that create win-win situations.”

When the Ukraine crisis escalated in 2014, Germany was decisive in steering the EU’s policy towards Moscow: it coordinated the imposition of EU sanctions and upheld diplomatic channels to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Moreover, Germany preserved its strategic energy cooperation with Russia, as witnessed by the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 project despite US opposition. Indeed, EU’s policy towards Russia was largely shaped by Berlin’s economic and institutional power and its strong diplomatic and economic links with Moscow, which galvanized the consent of its European and transatlantic allies.

During what became known as the ‘refugee crisis’ too, Germany relied on its extensive societal, economic and political ties with Turkey to take the lead in EU-Turkish relations and negotiate the so-called refugee deal with Ankara.

While a Franco-German ‘dual leadership’ is still an important feature of EU foreign policy, Germany’s enhanced contribution and its strategic culture presents a significant counterbalance for Paris’ often self-centred aspirations that has only fuelled the destabilisation of relations among long-standing NATO allies and between EU partners more broadly.

In that respect, Paris has so far thrown its weight behind Greece and Cyprus, promoting a punitive approach which calls for economic sanctions. Germany on the other hand, together with Spain, Malta and others continues to push for dialogue. Indeed it is well known that Athens and Berlin clashed in the recent Foreign Affairs Council Meeting on 13 August when the Greek side insisted on a harder line against Ankara that would have demanded an immediate end to Turkey’s exploratory activities and that would have welcomed the recent deal between Greece and Egypt demarcating the two countries’ exclusive economic zones. German officials disagreed with their position, particularly over the proposed reference to the Greek-Egyptian deal which was announced much to Berlin’s fury, a day before the scheduled announcement of exploratory talks between Athens and Ankara that had been mediated by Germany.

More recently, Germany has also reportedly told Greek Cypriot officials in Nicosia that the prospect of sanctions against Turkey is a distant scenario which reflects the growing annoyance on the part of the EU with Cyprus, after Nicosia effectively blocked attempts by EU foreign ministers to impose sanctions against Belarus at last week’s meeting. More remarkably perhaps, Paris appears to have changed its narrative too, in seeking a constructive dialogue with Turkey. According to diplomatic sources, recent statement by the French Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune calling on Nicosia to stop linking the issue of sanctions against Belarus with those against Turkey, comes after close coordination with Berlin.

It is no time for Berlin to back down. In fact, to ease tensions that exist and start a dialogue on sharing energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, more involvement on the part of Germany may just be what is needed. How this will resonate with the rest of Europe, and what trade-offs will be required to make this arrangement happen both legally and in practise, remains to be seen. But a robust engagement from Berlin, especially in the context of the planned regional conference to discuss maritime boundaries and hydrocarbon explorations, could possibly provide the missing impetus to stop the situation from further deterioriating by focusing on ‘win-win’ outcomes.