A continuing conflict between Turkey and Greece on the division of territorial waters in the Mediterranean is taking on threatening proportions.
Naval ships of Turkey, on the one hand, and Greece and european union allies, on the other hand, the military exercises in the disputed area near the island of Kastellorizo in the south of spain.
In no uncertain terms, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to go to the extreme in the struggle for claims on the sea area. ”We will do whatever it takes, ” says Erdogan. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said to US president Trump, who called the leaders of both countries on Wednesday, that Erdogan is jeopardising the stability of the region and the cohesion of NATO.
Although no one believes that the neighbouring countries-and NATO allies-are really After War, there is a fear in Europe of a small mistake with fatal consequences. “Every spark, however small, could be a catastrophe,” warned the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas this week.
Last week we had a confrontation between Greek and Turkish Marines, and a collision with a Greek frigate caused a Turkish warship to breach.
Escalating the conflict between the historical rivals on the European Union’s border would have major international consequences. While within the EU, Germany and Spain are mainly pushing for a conciliatory approach, France and Italy announced on Wednesday that they would participate in the military exercise of the Greeks. They are already receiving support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. France and Turkey were already at odds over a conflict in Libya.
The main ingredient of this flammable cocktail is a dispute over the territorial waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus, to which both the Greeks and the Turks claim in part. That’s where gas fields were discovered. Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece intend to transport that gas to Europe via pipelines through Egyptian factories.
The Greeks believe that the waters south of the island of Kastellorizo belong to their Exclusive Economic Zone. The Greek island, which is less than two kilometres from Turkey, is very small; but under the UN Convention on the law of the Sea, the nearest inhabited territory determines which country is responsible for the waters. And Kastellorizo is inhabited by 500 Greeks.
That division does not go in with the Turks. With all the Greek islands off the Turkish coast, Ankara would get off pretty badly: only by Kastellorizo does 40,000 square kilometres of seabed belong to the Greeks and not to the Turks. In a last year’s agreement between Turkey and Libya, a new exclusive zone has been drawn up which is much more favourable to the Turks. These claims described Cyprus and Egypt as ‘illegal’, Greece as ‘absurd’.
Chancellor Angela Merkel persuaded Turkish president Erdogan last month to suspend research missions to the seabed. But after talks quickly showed that the neighbouring countries do not want to give in to each other, this month Turkey began to test the waters south of Kastellorizo.
The Foreign Ministers of the EU member states announced on Friday that they would prepare new sanctions against Turkey if it continued its research missions. Before these sanctions come into force, Turkey will still have a chance to enter into dialogue, said EU foreign minister Josep Borrell.
A spokesperson from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs called it fencing with sanctions by the EU on Friday afternoon in a response ‘not helpful’. With such measures, the EU forced Turkey to take a step back in the past when tensions over the sea area increased. A lasting solution to the conflict, which has been on the brink of escalation several times since 1970, seems to be infinitely far away, even if Erdogan recovers.