27th Jan 2021


Mediterranean security lies in Europe's hands

  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 'German diplomacy is working extra hours these days as exhaustion floods European capitals over the stalled question of how to get out of the gridlock with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean' (Photo: Flickr)

"We had the deal with Turkey on the table, ready to sign", assures an advisor from the German chancellery. "But then Greece and Egypt struck their maritime deal and it all fell apart".

German diplomacy is working extra hours these days as exhaustion floods European capitals over the stalled question of how to get out of the gridlock with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

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At the European Council on Thursday and Friday (10-11 December), theoretically meant as a deadline for Turkey to show some good will, European leaders will discuss sanctions, although heavy measures are unlikely.

A comprehensive incentive package including modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union, offered to Turkey on 1 October but ultimately rejected by Ankara, was seen in Europe as a wide-open door for Turkey which Ankara was unable to appreciate then, and which Europeans now seem unwilling to repeat.

Current EU and Nato efforts focus on de-escalation and de-confliction between Greece and Turkey.

Once immediate tensions are averted and direct talks are firmly on track, the question on the most promising avenue to solve the underlying issues and prevent such tensions in the future comes to the fore.

Some advocate splitting up the big EastMed/Libya/Turkey knot into functional and sub-regional issue areas to facilitate quicker advances on each of these dossiers without each of them poisoning the other.

That way, it is argued, for example, the long-standing Cyprus dispute would not interfere with the Libyan civil war and vice versa.

Others argue that such an attempted de-politicisation by compartmentalisation would not hold as long-standing underlying conflicts cannot be artificially zoomed out but will always interfere – as Cyprus' recent veto on EU sanctions on Belarus to force punitive measures toward Turkey has painfully shown.

While de-escalating tensions between Greece and Turkey over gas drilling rights is the immediate diplomatic focus, behind Europe's deeper concerns lie the larger questions looming over all of this.

What, if anything, can Europe do to pull Turkey off the fool's errand of aggressive power projection in the neighbourhood? How can Europe become more effective in dissolving immediate security crises such as this one without the joker of US crisis diplomacy, leverage, and defense capabilities down its sleeve? How to move beyond permanent crisis management and devise a security strategy for the Mediterranean that is both feasible and sustainable?

Regarding US involvement, it is doubtful whether the message that Washington will focus on its primary strategic interests, and that the Mediterranean is not among them, has actually sunken in.

In the European neighbourhood, deterring Russia in the East remains a core US interest, while securing the Mediterranean does not.

For years, US officials have diplomatically but consistently reiterated that Europe's Southern flank is our own business.

To be sure, European diplomacy on the Eastern Mediterranean file has been reasonably proactive, and in particular Germany has taken over in some ways the leadership role owned by the United States in the past.

At the same time, European diplomats' mantra-like remarks on transatlantic renewal ("We are aware the US will be less involved") still tend to sound like diplomatic talking points rather than the preamble to battle plan.

Macron vs Kramp-Karrenbauer

Semantic sparring between president Emanuel Macron and German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on strategic autonomy and sovereignty over the past few months also diverted from the fact that in the Mediterranean, European ability and capability to act decisively and independently is not needed some remote time in the future; it is needed right now.

Here is the unhappy truth: Europe's Southern neighbourhood is a security mess, with more and more opportunistic spoilers jumping in, and no-one is going to come to the rescue. The neighbourhood is Europe's geopolitical Achilles' heel.

Taking Mediterranean security in its own hands is what European strategic autonomy most immediately boils down to.

On its 25th anniversary, not much is left of the Barcelona Declaration, which in 1995 drew up an EU-Mediterranean vision for comprehensive peace and prosperity for the region.

Instead, senior EU officials in private lament the gaping void of any fresh ideas on what to do in the Mediterranean beyond the securitised permanent crisis management that has characterised EU policy this past decade.

But even if Europeans radically tone down expectations and aspire to manage crises rather than solving them, let alone any grand designs for a comprehensive vision for regional security, the European machine room is in dire need for maintenance.

If Europe needs to upgrade diplomatically, the Eastern Mediterranean geopolitical knot is its graduation project.

Author bio

Kristina Kausch is senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.


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

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