“If things do not change, relations between the EU and Turkey are on a collision course.” This was the grim assessment, according to European officials, of the relationship between the European Union and Turkey, with many thinking the mistrust between the EU and Turkey has reached a new level and anticipated tough times ahead.
“Relations with Turkey have never been so bad. They have reached rock bottom, and they could get even worse,” one European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The list of contentious issues is long and is getting longer – Libya, gas resources in the Mediterranean, Syria, the Kurds, Russia, NATO, support for radical Islamist groups and illegal immigration to Europe,” he added.
The situation in Libya is the latest flashpoint between Turkey and the EU, and it is going to test the relationships to the limit. The EU finds itself unable to influence recent developments in Libya, and it therefore depends on the manoeuvres of regional powers that have significant stakes in the conflict and the future of the country.
“The EU should blame itself first and foremost, for there is no single European policy towards Libya. France has strategic goals and has supported parties in the conflict different from those supported by Italy, for example. Germany has not pulled its weight in the crisis and has not specified its strategic interests,” the diplomat said.
“This vacuum has given Turkey the opportunity to intervene in Libya. Ankara has complex geopolitical aims, and this makes the EU and close regional allies such as Egypt face tough choices in restoring stability in Libya.”
Turkey’s goals in Libya are to use its influence as leverage on several vital issues, above all its attempts to secure a share of natural gas resources in the Mediterranean, impose itself as a pivotal regional power that the West cannot do without, and blackmail the EU using the immigration card to gain preferential treatment.
The discovery of huge natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean over the past 10 years has created the potential to transform energy supplies in the region. But Turkey because of its deteriorating relations with many of the region’s countries has failed to co-operate with its neighbours.
Meanwhile, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Israel forged a joint plan to extract and export gas from the region. Last year, they were joined by Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority in establishing the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.
Faced with being left out, Turkey decided to play its favourite game of sabotage.
Under the direction of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has embraced an increasingly aggressive response to being excluded from regional efforts to exploit the area’s gas resources by sending the Turkish navy to intimidate ships belonging to international oil companies and dispatching its own exploration vessels.
Turkey’s aggressive ways threaten billions of dollars of investment as countries seek to boost their energy security. For the EU countries, the link between Turkey’s intervention in Libya and its wider agenda in the Middle East is alarming.
Turkey has overlapping political, geopolitical and business interests in Libya, but these can be summarised in a desire to attain regional hegemony. Intensifying its involvement in the Libyan conflict, Turkey has sent military support to the Government of National Accord in Libya (GNA). In November last year, the two sides signed an agreement that delineated new maritime boundaries between them.
Nikos Dendias, the Greek foreign minister, dismissed the deal as “verging on the ridiculous” as it ignored the existence of the Greek island of Crete. And diplomats are braced for a serious escalation of tensions if Turkey pushes ahead with its plans to conduct exploratory work in Crete’s waters.
The EU said the deal between Turkey and GNA “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third states [and] does not comply with the law of the sea.” But Erdogan has reinforced his backing for the administration in Tripoli, sending more military equipment and advisers as well as several thousand Syrian mercenaries who had earlier fought under Turkey’s aegis in Syria.
Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and France have all condemned Turkey’s regional ambitions, accusing it of “illegal activities” in the Eastern Mediterranean and of seeking to “undermine regional stability” through its actions in Libya.
German Foreign Minister and chair of the EU Council of Foreign Ministers Heiko Maas visited Greece on Tuesday for talks with Dendias. Top of the agenda was relations with Turkey and the pressures the tensions with Ankara were putting on the EU and the NATO alliance.
It is a concern shared with France, where French President Emmanuel Macron said at the beginning of this month that the EU needed to rethink its relations with Ankara. He emphasised that he “won’t tolerate” the role that Turkey is playing in Libya, calling it an obstacle to peace.
Macron also accused Turkey of ignoring a UN arms embargo against Libya and calls by the EU for an end to all foreign intervention in the country. A French Defence Ministry official urged NATO to address its “Turkey problem”.
“We have known complicated moments in the alliance, but we can’t be an ostrich and can’t pretend there isn’t a Turkey problem within NATO. We have to see it, say it and handle it,” the official said during a NATO defence ministers conference last month.
Earlier this month, the worsening dispute between France and Turkey over a naval standoff in the Mediterranean shone a searchlight on NATO’s struggle to keep order in its ranks and exposed the weaknesses in a military alliance that can only take action by consensus.
The dispute has revealed NATO’s limits when its allies are, or are perceived to be, on different sides of a conflict, in this case in Libya, and especially when a major nuclear ally like France has lamented the “brain death” of the world’s biggest security organisation due to a lack of American leadership.
At the heart of the France-Turkey quarrel is the question of whether the NATO allies should respect the UN arms embargo on Libya. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that the alliance “of course supports the implementation of UN decisions, including UN arms embargoes”.
With no firm US guiding hand, however, divisions among the allies over how the Libyan situation should be handled and a decision-making process that requires everyone to agree make it difficult to see when NATO might debate the embargo in earnest.
The dilemma for the EU is that the Turkish intervention opens Libya up to potentially catastrophic consequences.
The Turkish intervention impedes the possibility of a political solution in Libya, complicates disputes over the natural gas resources in the Mediterranean, threatens Libya with thousands of mercenaries from terrorist groups from Syria and reinforces Libya’s coastline as the epicentre of trafficking routes from Africa to Europe.
With the situation in Libya deteriorating fast, the EU needs to agree a comprehensive strategy towards Turkey, in which it can use its military, economic, trade and financial tools to force Ankara to engage more positively.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly