Turkey and Greece at loggerheads over maritime sovereignty

Will German attempts at mediation avert the Eastern Mediterranean crisis? Greece has accused Turkey of conducting illegal explorations for shale gas close to the Greek islands. Yet Ankara maintains that the waters are part of the Turkish continental shelf. Ronald Meinardus reports from Istanbul

By Ronald Meinardus

Recently, questions surrounding the ownership of natural resources suspected below the seafloor in the Eastern Mediterranean and, by extension, maritime sovereignty in the region, have seen serious sabre-rattling from both sides. Relations between the NATO partners, situated on the alliance’s fragile south-eastern flank, have seldom been so poor. Yet the altercation has long since ceased to be a bilateral matter involving just Turkey and Greece.

The current tensions were triggered by an announcement from Ankara that it would be sending a vessel to explore waters near the Greek island of Kastellorizo. For Athens, this was and remains a significant provocation; for Ankara, on the other hand, it is business as usual, since the tiny Greek island lies within view of the Anatolian mainland.

The essence of the problem is that Ankara does not want to recognise that the Greek islands form their own continental shelf – as stipulated by international maritime law. While Greece is invoking international law and setting out its legal arguments, Ankara, which has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, is pushing for a political solution.

Much to Turkey's displeasure, the EU has positioned itself decisively behind Greece on this question of territory: “We are determined to protect the EU's external borders and to strongly support Greece's sovereignty,” the EU’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, said in late June. The EU’s foreign ministers ultimately backed Athens once again, following their call for de-escalation, urging Turkey to bring an end to its “illegal drilling”.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Verheißung einer "neuen Ära" für die Türkei: Inmitten des Konflikts um Erdgasbohrungen im östlichen Mittelmeer hatte der türkische Präsident Erdogan am 21. August in Istanbul erklärt, die Türkei habe „die größte Erdgasentdeckung ihrer Geschichte im Schwarzen Meer gemacht“. Das Bohrschiff Fatih habe ein Vorkommen mit 320 Milliarden Kubikmetern entdeckt. Ziel sei es, das Land im Jahr 2023 mit Gas aus dem Vorkommen zu versorgen, so Erdogan.

Confidential discussions in Berlin

The Europeans are not content to leave the matter at rebukes and appeals for change, however: Brussels and Berlin have launched a diplomatic intervention with the aim of persuading President Erdogan to withdraw the exploration vessel and guiding Athens and Ankara to the negotiating table.

Berlin sent a clear signal in its address to Erdogan. Progress in Turkey’s relations with the EU would be contingent upon “Ankara halting its provocations in the East Mediterranean,” in the words of Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas. To give the estranged neighbours a helping hand, secret discussions were held with emissaries from Athens and Ankara in Berlin in July.

Hopes of a swift resolution did not last long. Meanwhile, Athens and Cairo announced an intergovernmental agreement establishing the maritime borders between Egypt and Greece. Envoys had spent ten years crafting the agreement. The announcement was met by outrage in Turkey.

The "so-called agreement" ­– as it was decried in the Turkish press – was "null and void", President Erdogan countered. He feels tricked and does not trust Greece. According to Turkey, a standstill had been agreed upon by the neighbours. Athens’ subsequent deal with Egypt has placed this in jeopardy.

It has since transpired that the Germans themselves were anything but enthused by the Greeks’ arrangement with the government in Cairo. According to the Greek press, Berlin rejected Athens’ plan to have an EU declaration make favourable mention to the agreement between Greece and Egypt.

A thorn in Ankara’s side

The Greek-Egyptian agreement is problematic for Erdogan primarily because it frustrates Ankara’s plan to divide up huge swathes of the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and the Libyan government in Tripoli, thereby tacitly ignoring sovereign areas belonging to the Greek Islands of Crete and Rhodes.

In retaliation to the agreement between Cairo and Athens, Erdogan re-launched the exploration vessel – accompanied by a military escort. On both sides of the Aegean, the rhetoric intensified, with nationalist media outlets in both countries adding fuel to the fire.

Greece’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis is apparently determined to defend Greek sovereignty. He is not seeking military escalation, yet there remains ‘the risk of an accident’ which could lead to war, according to the Greek premier’s television address to the nation.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas attend a news conference in Athens on 25. 08. 2020 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/Eurokinissi/STR)
Readiness for dialogue? Following a whirlwind diplomatic mission to Athens and Ankara on 25.08.2020, German Foreign Heiko Maas commented: "I remain convinced that if both sides start direct talks with honest intentions we can find a solution that can be acceptable to both sides." Whether Turkey and Greece will actually be prepared to compromise remains to be seen

Meanwhile, the adversaries have made efforts to mobilise support for their respective positions on the international political stage. Greece has taken the lead in diplomatic circles: as described, the EU remains firmly behind Athens, France both with its rhetoric and its military, demonstratively nailing its colours to the mast in the crisis zone on the side of Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. Finally, Israel, and Egypt before it, have taken Greece’s side with clear shows of solidarity.

“Macron the Bogeyman”

In official terms, President Emmanuel Macron of France represents the most significant bogeyman for Turkey. The comment columns of media outlets close to the government contain countless unfriendly opinion pieces: Burhanettin Duran of the Daily Sabah writes that the French president is encouraging Greece to escalate tensions with Turkey. This, he claims, is "an attempt to take revenge for his own humiliation in Libya".

Relations with Germany and Chancellor Merkel are considerably better than those with France, with which Turkey remains at odds over the question of Libya. "Only two countries carry weight for Turkey: Germany and the USA," claims political scientist Professor Mustafa Aydin from Istanbul’s Kadir Has University in an interview with the Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea.Even the European Union does not rank highly in Turkey’s good books: "If the EU wishes to be part of a process aiming for peace, prosperity and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, it must be objective and honest," argues Turkish spokesperson for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Hami Aksoy. Two member states – namely Greece and the Republic of Cyprus – are, according to Aksoy’s somewhat drastic claims, holding the EU to ransom with their manipulation and extortion.

What role for the EU?

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul think-tank EDAM, does not have great confidence in the EU to act as mediator: "Europeans have no real leverage against Erdogan. On the contrary, Turkey can use the refugee crisis to strong-arm the EU."

Erdogan proved, spectacularly so, that Ankara is capable of using refugees as a political weapon in the spring of this year. The unannounced opening of the border hardly inspired great confidence. The process strengthened Athens’ position within the EU and did additional damage to Erdogan’s image.


"We need a coherent policy on Turkey... and that will only succeed with France’s cooperation," Chancellor Merkel claimed at the beginning of the German Council Residency in the Bundestag.

Berlin and Paris do not always agree when it comes to the matter of Turkish-Greek relations. At their summit in Bregancon, Merkel and Macron pledged to put their differences to one side. "We need stability in the region, not tension," the Chancellor said. Macron said that the EU must protect the sovereignty of its member states.

France and Germany, they claimed, are now working together; it is imperative that they employ their respective capabilities in a "complementary" manner. The French President explicitly backed Germany’s mediation.

Fine words, of course, but the future will show whether these will be followed by real deeds. Until very recently, there was no pan-European harmony to speak of on matters involving Libya. Perhaps the Europeans will succeed – led by Paris and Berlin – and bring about a solution to the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It would be good for Europe, particularly for Greece and Turkey – and not least for Cyprus.

Ronald Meinardus

© Qantara.de 2020           

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

Dr. Ronald Meinardus heads the office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Istanbul.