Emmanuel Macron will receive German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday at Fort Brégançon. In particular, the two European leaders will discuss the renewed tensions with Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean over gas exploration carried out by Turkey outside its territorial waters.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel watches Big Blue from the terrace of Fort Brégançon on Thursday 20 August, there is a good chance that her host Emmanuel Macron will discuss tensions with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, 2,000 kilometers further east.
In its full honeymoon following the adoption of the tweezers for the European recovery plan after Covid, the Franco-German couple share a similar view on several hot topics for the EU, such as the crisis in Belarus or Brexit. But what to do with Ankara’s gas ambitions remains a point of disagreement between the two parties.
French military reinforcement in the eastern Mediterranean
In an interview with Paris Match, published Thursday morning, the French president thus confirms that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy is “an expansionist policy; mixing nationalism and Islamism, which is incompatible with European interests” and “factor for destabilization”.
“Europe must face it and take responsibility. I am not in favor of escalation. But symmetrically I do not believe in powerless diplomacy. We sent the signal that European solidarity made sense.” , adds the French head of state, in a transparent reference to the fact that two warships and Rafale fighters were sent in mid-August in support of Greece, which saw Turkish exploration vessels enter its territorial waters.
Berlin had tasted this show of power, then content to “note” French military reinforcement in the eastern Mediterranean. The German government spokesman had instead insisted on the need “to avoid further escalation”, a roundabout way to accuse Paris of increasing pressure.
For President Macron, it is therefore a matter of bringing the German Chancellor together for a more offensive policy against Turkey. Berlin has at the moment draped itself in the position of the mediator, who avoids responding to Ankara’s provocations in order to better lower tensions.
The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is worrying. Turkey’s unilateral decision on oil exploration is causing tensions. These must be concluded to enable a peaceful dialogue between neighboring countries and NATO allies.
– Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) August 12, 2020
Rushing for gas fields in the Mediterranean
This renewed tension is the latest episode in rush for hydrocarbons triggered by the discovery of large gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. The mid-August shipment of Turkish exploration vessels, under military escort, to Greek territorial waters and the Republic of Cyprus, two Member States of the European Union, attracted the attention of the Greek navy.
The exploration of the Turkish ship Oruç Reis around the Greek island of Kastellorizo has revived old and deep wounds, the result of centuries of tumultuous relations between the two countries. For Athens, which lost Turkish rule in 1832 after 380 years of Ottoman occupation, the Turkish challenge evokes the revival of the imperialist ambitions of its powerful neighbor. On the Ankara side, we have not forgotten Greek attempts to drive Turks back militarily against deep Anatolia, at the time of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.
More prosaically, this string of islands under Greek sovereignty a few kilometers from the Turkish coast – the extreme case is Kastellorizo, located 2 kilometers from the Turkish city of Kaş and more than 550 kilometers from mainland Greece – frustrates gas ambitions from Ankara.
Instead of negotiating to share a hypothetical jackpot, the two neighbors have launched a race for external support. Turkey is thus trying to expand its sphere of influence with a controversial agreement signed in 2019 with the Libyan government, which creates an imaginary “sea corridor” between the two countries that violates the exclusive Greek and Cypriot territories. Athens responded with a similar agreement signed with Egypt, which also wants its share of the pie.
Conflicts intertwined with the war in Libya
On paper, the French position in this confrontation seems clear: it is about defending international law and the sovereignty of two EU Member States. However, Paris’ eagerness to help Athens arouses nasty distrust on the part of Berlin, but also from Washington.
France is really involved in a latent diplomatic war with Turkey in Libya, where the two countries support separate camps. The Turkish military intervention in the Tripoli region in late 2019 put the UN-recognized Libyan government back on its feet and thwarted Paris’ plans, which instead opted for Marshal Haftar with his Emirati and Egyptian allies. A French stance on Libya that is already controversial within the EU and NATO.
If the Elysee said in a press release that there was “no significant contradiction” between Paris and Berlin on the Turkish issue, it remains for their leaders to agree on a common policy, in addition to the expected declarations of respect for international law.