Thursday

24th Sep 2020

Column

Drums of war again, in Europe

Just a few weeks ago, as Europeans in several countries put their furious debates about masks, corona apps and nightlife restrictions in an ever higher gear, Turkey and Greece almost came to blows in the Aegean Sea.

German chancellor Angela Merkel was reportedly able to prevent eighteen Turkish ships from carrying out oil and gas explorations on the Greek continental shelf, not far from the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

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Turkish F-16s flew over the island. Naval ships and fighter jets on both sides were on standby.

The German newspaper Bild (one of the few media in Europe to cover the issue extensively) quoted anonymous officials in the Bundeskanzleramt who, barely recovered from shock, said that this incident reminded them of the Cuban missile crisis.

Back then, in 1962, US and Soviet warships went full steam ahead into confrontation, flirting with a conflict that could have resulted in a third world war.

That war was about to break out in Europe, by now surely the most pacifist continent in the world - who would have thought?

But that's what happened. The Greek army's chief of the general staff returned in a hurry from Cyprus. Greek soldiers' holidays were suspended. Some inhabitants of border towns were advised to evacuate, being within Turkish shooting range. Citizens living under the same roof as likely 'targets' received a warning, too.

Both sides, meanwhile, made phone calls to Merkel. This is an interesting detail. Everybody used to call the White House when there was trouble in Europe. During the euro crisis, US president Barack Obama himself got involved several times. Now president Donald Trump sits in the White House and everyone calls Merkel.

Meanwhile, activists in several cities in Europe defied social-distancing and mask requirements in protests supported by - you couldn't make this up - neo-Nazi groups, antivax campaigners, anti-globalist hippies, and ordinary citizens fed up with corona restrictions.

"Our demand is to go back to democracy," one woman said during a rally of 20,000 in Berlin. "Away with these laws that have been imposed on us, away with the masks that make us slaves!"

The chancellor had just returned from Brussels, where she and the French president had fought a four-day battle at a European Council meeting, trying to show Anglo-Saxon hedge funds that this time the EU was really defending the euro, so there would be no point in shorting Italy.

Merkel had little sleep in Brussels, but she got her Covid-19 Recovery Plan in the end.

Unfortunately, this extra bit of European sovereignty had its price. Countries like the Netherlands demanded financial compensation, in the form of EU budget rebates.

Part of that money came from the budget of the European border Protection Agency, Frontex, which during the next seven years will receive as much as 43 percent less than intended. The budget of new European Defence Fund was also trimmed: 39 percent less than the European Commission had initially proposed.

Still groggy from these budget battles but reportedly undeterred, Merkel, once back in Berlin, started to work the phones to get Athens and Ankara to back down in the Aegean Sea.

For the Turkish president, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, she has become the main European interlocutor over the years. He sees Merkel as the only European leader who carries some authority.

That's probably a good thing. Because Europe could become a geopolitical chessboard on which rival superpowers move their pieces.

Trump is pulling 12,000 American soldiers out of Germany. European companies working on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany are threatened with American sanctions if they dare continuing the project.

China is increasing political pressure, too, because of Huawei.

Russia and Turkey are conducting wars in Syria and Libya, drawing a ring of chaos and military aggression around Europe.

During a speech on TV recently president Erdogan challenged his enemies to meet him on the battlefield, announcing that "the prosperity of Western countries, based on blood, tears, pain and exploitation of the rest of the world, is over".

Welcome to the new world, where many breaks are off and former allies turn into bullies. One accident, and things can rapidly escalate. Ms Merkel understands this.

She told Erdogan that she's trying to help him, so he shouldn't embarrass her by threatening Greece.

True, after a Turkish-French military skirmish in the Mediterranean, in June, Macron had furiously demanded EU sanctions against Turkey - and Merkel had objected to that.

Move your ships away from Kastellorizo, she now told the Turkish president, and negotiate with Europe if you want to drill at sea. She added that otherwise, she would not be able to avert European sanctions much longer - sanctions that will almost certainly ruin Turkey.

After this, the Turkish ships turned and sailed away in the other direction. They docked in an Antalya port.

But for how long? And can Merkel keep the Greeks quiet, who have repeatedly said they will not negotiate under Turkish threats?

The drums of war can be heard again around Europe, but they receive scant attention. All we hear about in the news is masks, tests and the precise reach of aerosols. Some summer.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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