Is a new set-up possible in Central and Eastern Mediterranean?

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Three successive stops will mark the efforts of Greece to negotiate the waters of Central and East Mediterranean throughout this April, pregnant with change.

The first is quite near: Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias are to visit Libya on April 6, to hold talks with the country’s new Government of National Accord – interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dheibah and head of the Presidency Council Mohammed Memfi. Shifting equilibria in Libya proper and the overall region allow for Greece to strive for the restoration of relations with Libya that had been quite close even after the fall of the Ghaddafi regime (in 2011). Greece is expected to re-open its embassy in Tripoli and negotiate with the current government some sort of way out of the Maritime Boundary Treaty Libya had entered with Turkey to draw an EEZ delimitation (in 2019) infringing the rights of Greece under international law. This last point is echoed by the recent (March) EU Summit. Such a position was made clear to the Libyan Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh by Nikos Dendias in July 2020 (back then Greece supported East Libya strongman Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey was dealing for the MBT with the – UN-recognised –  Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj) but no actual move was made to overturn the Turkey-Libya arrangement.

Now, efforts are underway to push for a conciliation of rival claims over energy exploration in the region by Greece, Cyprus and – quite importantly – Egypt. The Mitsotakis-Dendias mission to Libya was preceded by other EU worthies; this very April 6 is also set for a visit of European Council President Charles Michel along with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Ankara, with the hope that an overall re-direction of Turkey’s policy can be influenced.

It is much too early to hope for a new set-up in Central and Eastern Mediterranean, notwithstanding the push towards such a direction on part of the EastMed Gas Forum, or the new Biden Administration policy and the US comeback to the region.

If this Greek mission to Libya is close at hand, the much-awaited meeting of Nikos Dendias with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu – tentatively announced for April 15, in Ankara – hangs on the level of Turkish truculence over the Eastern Mediterranean and – more importantly – over the Aegean. Quite recently, aggressive moves of the Turkish Coast Guard along with renewed attempts of migrant boats to cross over to the Greek islands, are undermining the efforts of diplomatic rapprochement. Which, to be true, does not have the full support even within the current Greek Government.

Last, but by no means least, the informal “5+1” conference to be held, under UN auspices, in Geneva end-April (between 27/4 and 29/4 to be more precise), over the Cyprus issue is also cause for concern. Greece – and the Greek-Cypriot community – will join the informal conference looking for a settlement based on UN Security Council resolutions and compatible with EU law; this point is echoed in the European Council of March 25/26 resolutions and should normally be supported in Geneva by the “+1” participant, namely the EU representative. All along, though, both Turkey and the Turkish-Cypuriot community (the latter under its recently-elected representation of Ersin Tatar/Tahsin Ertogruloglu) clearly reject the “bi-communal/bi-zonal solution functional Federation” approach and opt for a loose Conferation barely concealing a two-States solution.

Given the importance of Cyprus for the overall Eastern Mediterranean situation, the end-April informal conference is already watched carefully – but not with a high degree of optimism.