Unless the EU lends conditional support to Greece and Greek Cypriots, it will only further increase tensions and prevent a resolution to the conflict.
The Greece-Turkey maritime delimitation dispute continues. Despite a temporary calm in the matter, the sides have achieved neither diplomatic progress, nor a change in the situation. On the contrary, recent developments indicate that a new period of escalation might be on the horizon.
If European states want to encourage the Turkish Cypriots and Turks on one side, and the Greek Cypriots and Greeks on the other, to resolve the dispute, they have to shift their mistaken perception of being obligated to display unconditional solidarity with their fellow EU member partners. In other words, they need to link their solidarity to conditions. Only when they practise this approach towards the Greek government and the Greek Cypriot administration will they be able to facilitate a de-escalation and political solution in the region.
Ultimately, it is Greece’s maximalist claims in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea that have created Turkish-Greek tensions. Despite international decisions regarding the matter, Greece argues that a small island off the coast of Turkey could generate an exclusive economic zone, to the disadvantage of Turkey.
In August 2020, both nations were on the brink of a confrontation when a Turkish and Greek ship crashed into each other. The diplomatic efforts of German Chancellor Angela Merkel prevented further escalation. On the other side, however, France encouraged the Greek side to be more assertive and showed its solidarity with Greek maximalist claims.
France also views the dispute in the region as a golden opportunity to make arms sales and gather more profit for its domestic defence companies. Paris wants to support its domestic arms industry and does not hesitate to sell arms to questionable states, especially after the loss of a lucrative arms contract in Australia with the formation of AUKUS.
The recent French arms sales to Greece serve as further assurance for the Greek side to make its demands without engaging in meaningful negotiations with the Turkish side. In this manner, the purchase of the Rafale fighter jets by Greece gave the Greek decision-makers false expectations. Athens thinks that its compellence strategy will prevent Turkey from accessing the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. However, due to the structural restraints in its military and the limits of its diplomatic influence, it is unlikely to achieve the credible compellence it needs to meet its excessive political objectives.
This fantasy of compellence vis-a-vis Turkey pushes the Greek side to neglect serious negotiations and bet on achieving their claims. This misjudgment is the main reason why both sides cannot reach a resolution and engage in an arms race and mutual military posturing.
Athens’ miscalculations became clear once again when the Greek defence minister declared that the defence pact signed with France included the exclusive economic zones of Greece. This claim was rejected by the French defence minister. Two NATO states signed a defence agreement against a fellow NATO partner, the Greek side misinterpreted the terms of the agreement - if this misinterpretation were not corrected, Athens might have acted unwisely.
On the other side, the EU has repeatedly signalled its readiness to sanction Turkey for its alleged aggressive behaviour in the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas. It appears that many European diplomats and politicians agree behind closed doors that the Greek claims are maximalist and inappropriate considering their reluctance to impose sanctions against Turkey. Yet, they do not pressure Greeks and Greek Cypriots because of a misperception that they need to show unquestioned solidarity with Greece and the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus as fellow EU members.
This solidarity policy crumbles upon closer scrutiny, as it is applied selectively. European nations don’t show this supposed full support with Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic states; they question their actions. Why the double standard?
It is in the interest of Europe for the sides to reach a resolution in the maritime delimitation dispute, not only to avoid military escalation but also to gain financial benefits and to diversify the energy supply channels.
In light of these dynamics, EU members and other European states should discourage the Greeks and Greek Cypriots from undertaking provocative manoeuvres and strong rhetoric.
For instance, recently Turkey threatened to block any unauthorised search for gas and oil in its economic exclusive zone in the eastern Mediterranean after Greek Cyprus awarded hydrocarbon exploration and drilling rights in its alleged offshore block 5. This region lies within the Turkish continental shelf and provocative actions like this by the Greek Cypriots harm the stability in the region and prospects for a political settlement of the maritime delimitation and maybe even the Cyprus conflict.
Turkey’s strategy is to block one-sided impositions by Greece and the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus to force the unwilling side to engage in serious negotiations and a diplomatic solution.
Europe should instead encourage Greece and the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus to engage in diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute with Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Otherwise, the dispute will teeter on the verge of escalation, an unnecessary and dangerous game.
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