Of Europe, the US, Turkey. Irini and eye-openers

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The bit of information – it started as a leak, it soon morphed into news – that the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would join in the (videoconference) deliberations of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on Monday is the very first step of some importance proving that the EU is starting to deal with the “extremely important” matter of Turkey’s behavior in the Eastern (and Central/Libya) Mediterranean. Especially against Cyprus and Greece: EU members, it should be reminded… Whether the 90 minutes scheduled by EU High Representative Joseph Borrell for the Pompeo’s participation will be enough for the wide range of issues that will be raised – starting front the post-Covid international cooperation and US reservations about relations with China (up to Huawei issues) and ranging all the way to matters involving Turkey (Syria, Libya and the Cyprus-Greece EEZ situation) – is not an easy question.

But the Europeans have finally understood that, if the US is not brought directly into the regional equation, the situation will steadily evolve into a conflagration waiting to happen. (“No lighters in the fuel-barrel hangar”, as one of the participants in an earlier such session was reported to say). The teleconference of Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis with EU Council of Ministers President Charles Michel and High Representative Borrell, followed by Cypriot President Anastassiadis to the same purpose of “a wake-up call”, has surely played a role. Still, far more sobering was the realization of Europe’s own lack of credibility that emerged with the blatant failure of EUNAVFORMed operation IRINI, last week.

In its very first weeks of existence, the EU/CSDP mission (main participants: France, Italy, Greece; associated: Germany, Malta, Luxemburg) on whose own website a helicopter overflying the Mediterranean figures prominently, was supposed to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya. The eye-opener: when the Greek naval vessel Spetsaie (a MEKO 200 frigate, operating aw IRINI,) followed close the Turkish/Tanzanian-flag ferry “Cirkin” that was carrying heavy military equipment from Haydarpasa in Turkey to Misrata in Libya and attempted to board so as to effect the controls mandated by the UN arms embargo it faced quite a shock. Its Aegean Hawk Sikorsky flying under EURONAVFORMed colours got the reply that “Cirkin” was under the control of the Turkish government (and, more importantly, sailing with the protection of 3 Turkish frigates). The Greek/European helicopter was promptly summoned back – IRINI is currently under Italian leadership – and “Cirkin” reached soon afterwards the port of Misrata.

This sort of eye-opener, along with Egyptian discomfort as the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Libyan Government of National Accord (under Fayez al-Sarraj) gaining the upper hand over Khalifa Haftar’s in surgent forces with the help of Turkey, may yet put new forces into motion. With “Europe” less in the role of a interested by-stander, more in one of constructive participant. Thus, with the U.S. close enough.