Due to the increased activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, Transcaucasia, and the Black Sea basin of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey, and the apparent reduction of Europe’s role in the Middle East, the balance of EU policy in relations with Turkey has increasingly shifted from attempts to influence Ankara to timid opposition to the current actions of the Turkish leader.
Today, the European Union, mainly Greece and Cyprus, is openly dissatisfied with Turkey’s policy, while Brussels is trying to demonstrate its support to these countries. MEPs have repeatedly stated that sanctions should be imposed against Ankara since “Turkey has begun to go beyond its country’s borders, trespassing territories of other countries.” In its attempts to draw the EU to its side in disputes with Turkey, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece sent letters to foreign offices of Germany, Spain, and Italy with a request to impose an arms embargo on Turkey and to Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement with a plead to consider the possibility of a complete suspension of the EU-Turkey Customs Union. As the Greek City Times news portal noted regarding the Greek arms embargo proposal, similar steps were taken by Germany and France after the 2019 Turkish offensive into north-eastern Syria.
In response, Heiko Maas, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, publicly stated on October 13, the eve of his trip to Nicosia and Athens, that Turkey should abandon provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean and stop alternating steps towards détente with provocations. He promised to raise the question of condemning Ankara’s actions, which are severe escalations on Turkey’s part, at the European Council meeting on October 15-16.
So what? The European Union did discuss but failed to agree on an arms embargo on Turkey to punish it for violating Greeks and Cypriots’ sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Among those who blocked this proposal put forward by Greece were Germany (despite the previous public rhetoric of Heiko Maas!), Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Malta, explaining their position by “economic reasons and fears of illegal immigration from Turkey.” France, Austria, and Slovenia supported Greece in this effort, while the rest of the EU Member States abstained. As a result, the European Union put the brakes on discussing this issue, limiting itself only to promises to Greece and Cyprus that “the EU should meet again in December to discuss possible sanctions against Ankara.”
So far, only Canada’s government has suspended licenses for the supply of military equipment to Turkey, as François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, wrote in his Twitter. This action by Ottawa was critically received in Ankara. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey, drew his attention to this in a telephone conversation on October 16 with Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, saying that the suspension of exports of Canadian defense industry products to Turkey “does not meet the spirit of Alliance between the two countries.”
Against the background of the EU’s almost passive reaction to Athens’ concerns, Greece decided to prepare itself for a possible further escalation of the conflict with Turkey to an armed one, particularly by increasing military service by one year, and preparing military maneuvers. As Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, Minister for National Defence of Greece, clarified on October 20, Athens’ plans include the increase of its professional soldiers’ forces and enrollment in military educational institutions. The goal is to provide more troops to Turkey’s border along the Maritsa River (Greek name — Evros). Greece is also making military preparations in the Aegean Sea, where its armed forces are currently on high alert.
Simultaneously, the Greek authorities plan to more than triple the length of the wall on the border with Turkey, completing an approximately 26 kilometers long section and installing additional surveillance cameras and mobile sirens to deter illegal immigrants, which will cost about 63 million euros. Greece is planning to complete this “barrier” by the end of April next year. Its goal is to stop mass border violations by migrants from Turkey, which the Turkish leader uses as direct pressure on the European Union. The reader will remember that at the end of February, the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey has opened its borders with the EU for Syrian refugees and has no intention to close them if relations with the EU deteriorate. Afterwards, Süleyman Soylu, Turkey’s Minister of Interior, said that his country has passed through its borders to European countries more than 100 thousand refugees who had arrived in Edirne’s North-Western province, the border with Greece.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears not to want to deviate from the path of increasing regional influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and the South Caucasus by military means. Moreover, he clearly no longer wants to succumb to individual EU leaders’ persuasions, notably those of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Therefore, it seems that the proposals that the European Union is planning to offer Ankara in exchange for de-escalation of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including the possible expansion and modernization of the EU—Turkey customs Union and the revision of the refugee agreement, are now clearly not enough. Brussels still does not have a single clear answer as to how the EU intends to cope with Ankara’s claims to becoming a regional power amidst an increasingly tense situation in the region. And frankly, Brussels currently has more important things to worry about than Turkey: a weakening unity, coronavirus, and migrants threatening the French and Germany.
Besides, President Recep Erdogan has clearly spotted the Europeans’ weaknesses, their foreign policy disagreements, and the “fear” of refugees. He also sees a power vacuum that will arise in the region given the US’s desire to withdraw from the Middle East under the Trump presidency. And he is trying to benefit from this, intending to become a regional force through its military presence, and may even further aggravate his foreign policy. Therefore, Ankara’s relations with France are poor, and those with Germany have deteriorated, Turkey finds the EU priorities unattractive and liberal values hostile.
Vladimir Odintsov, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.