From Bregançon to the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean

By Antonis D. Papagiannidis

There is quite a long way from picturesque Fort de Bregançon, perched on a small island off Bormes-les-Mimosas near Marseilles, official residence of the French Presidents since General de Gaulle (in his waning years), to Athens or Ankara. Yet, it was in a meeting at Bregançon last week of Emmanuel Macron with Chancellor Angela Merkel that the scenario was elaborated that will now evolve in front of our eyes for the Eastern Mediterranean, for EU relations with Turkey and for a last-ditch effort to defuse the looming Greek-Turkish conflict.

The week starts with a visit of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (Germany chairs the EU Council for the current semester) to first Athens, then Ankara so as to ensure that the two parties are indeed willing to accept some measure of European mediation; this very same week ends with an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers (“in Gymnisch mode”) where EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (full titles play a key role in things European) Josep Borrell is supposed to submit a list of “measures”, themselves supposed to put a brake to Turkey’s aggressive behavior towards (EU members, not to forget…) Greece and Cyprus. Such Turkish behaviour especially insofar exploration operations for natural gas in Eastern Mediterranean is concerned – carry along encroachment to Greek and Cypriot sovereignty, or at least sovereign rights of EEZs and continental shelves.

Of course, as things go in the region, complications pile up: Germany is clearly more interested in keeping Turkey as close as possible to the EU, if for no other reason so that Ankara shows some measure of co-operation over the refugee issue; France has increasingly tense relations with Turkey and shows some willingness to assist Greece and Cyprus who feel directly threatened; the overall relations of the EU with Turkey are anew under contestation.

As if things were not sufficiently complicated, Turkey has just made public a – purportedly major – natural gas find at the Black Sea, some 150 miles off the Turkish coast , near Romanian and Bulgarian similar finds. Exploration by Turkish Fatih drillship was said – by President Erdogan in person – to have struck a 320 bn cubic meters (initial estimates) natural gas reserve.  [To give some EastMed comparison: the major Egyptian Zohr gas field has an estimate of 850 bn c.m; the Israeili Leviathan field of 620 bn c.m; the Cyprus Aphrodite one of 180 bn c.m.]. Turkish authorities celebrated this find as sufficient to start making the country energy-independent by 2023 (the 100the anniversary of the Republic of Turkey); international markets remained rather underwhelmed following an initial flurry of media interest.

Whatever the outcome at this new energy front, the hopes raised by the Black Sea finds that Ankara might be cajoled and/or pressured by the Europeans to put its exploration operations at the Eastern Mediterranean to the back burner so as to make it easier for the dialogue with Greece to start (the Cyprus issue is far more complicated) were promptly dashed. Speaking at the Dollmabahce Palace in Istanbul to the international Press, President Erdogan declared “we will accelerate our activities in the Mediterranean […] God willing, we expect similar good news”.