When EU foreign ministers met by video conference on Friday to discuss new sanctions against Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko a new urgent item thrust itself on to the agenda: Turkish naval muscle-flexing in the eastern Mediterranean. Not that it was an entirely new issue – for months the ministers, at the behest of the Cypriots, have been exercised by Turkish drilling in the island’s waters.
The protestations and expressions of EU solidarity with Cyprus have had no effect on Ankara, and the latter has now decided to extend its searches into contested Greek waters.
Athens placed its military forces on high alert, recalling naval and air force officers from holiday, while the French are reinforcing their presence in the region with two Rafale fighter jets and the naval frigate Lafayette . President Macron tweeted in a strong statement, describing the situation as “preoccupying” and blaming Turkey’s “unilateral decisions” for mounting tensions. Last month he stepped up calls for EU sanctions over “violations” of Greek and Cypriot sovereignty.
A Greek lake
At issue is a failure of both Greece and Turkey to agree on exclusive economic zones in shared seas. Athens maintains its islands, no matter how small, have their own continental shelves; while Ankara argues that, if upheld, the Aegean would effectively be turned into a Greek lake. It sees itself as a regional power and has no intention of being left out of a potential energy bonanza. The discovery of deep-sea gas fields, first off Egypt and then Israel and Cyprus, has proved the eastern Mediterranean to be rich in natural resources.
Turkey had launched naval exercises off two Greek islands, dispatching the Oruç Reis, a drillship escorted by gunboats. The two-day drill is to the east and south of Rhodes and Kastellorizo.
The spat is one of several that has seen President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seek to reassert Turkey as a regional power. Like Greece, Turkey is a Nato member with the latter's second largest army, and his new-found military confidence has seen Turkey involved in major incursions in Syria and Libya and strikes into Iraq.