Of sanctions and talks

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Less than a week after Turkey completed its months-long seismic searches for hydrocarbons over large swathes of the Eastern Mediterranean in areas Greece (and Cyprus) consider belonging to their respective continental shelves (and EEZs) and withdrew seismic vessel Oruc Reis, but also less than a week before the EU Summit of December 10-11 deliberates over sanctions to be imposed for such Turkish actions, Ankara decided to up the ante: a new NAVTEX was issued for real-ammunition naval exercises in the area between Rhodes, Crete and the island outpost of Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Kastellorizo archipelago. Over which Ankara reiterates its position, that its own “sovereign rights” will be fully enforced: this is a reference to the Turkish position that Kastellorizo has no rights further to territorial waters (of 6 miles), since it “sits on” Turkish/Anatolian continental shelf. Not to forget that Turkey has meanwhile been projecting for a short time a renewed European profile trying to defuse the Summit decisions.

Speaking of sanctions – or, rather, of “measures” to be activated out of the EU institutional arsenal (or out of the EU toolkit, let’s not ruffle feathers) in an effort to contain Turkish behaviour towards EU members – it is more than interesting to note that, for one more time, it is across the Atlantic that things get moving. The US defense appropriations bill, completing the American dissuasion operation over Turkey acquiring Russian S-400 missile system in defiance of NATO rules, has set in motion the heavy mechanism of CAATSA sanctions. Such sanctions are to be taken within 30 days if the decision is voted by Congress; they can only be lifted by the President if, after one year, the threat is over that S-400 are considered to be to U.S./NATO defense interests.

Now, back to the EU: the hopes that Greece and Cyprus have invested to successive European Summits to make Turkey toe the line in the Eastern Mediterranean may once more fall quite short of expectations. The December 10/11 European Council agenda may well be high-jacked by no less than two high-profile EU crises: on one hand there is the end-run to the post-Brexit UK-EU institutional set-up that should be in place before 2020 ends to avoid an effective no-deal Brexit; on the other hand the much-vaunted Next Generation EU relief package from the Covid-19 pandemic that has kept much of the EU under lock-down has to be forced through Hungarian, Polish and Slovene vetoes.

On both fronts – as well as on a third one, having to do with Banking Union heavy technicalities – the seasoned legal/diplomatic services of Brussels may well bring to the surface Byzantine solutions. Still, the Summit proper would find it lacks time and/or enthusiasm to really deal with the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey.

Last but by no means least: an annoying way out for the EU – especially so for the EU German Presidency that would in no way accept it was overwhelmed at this front – would be to call on Athens and Ankara to once more engage in bilateral talks, so as to defuse the situation. Since the Turkish position is that such talks should extend to far more issues than continental shelf/EEZ and their delimitation, this might well be less of a way out and more of a further dead-end.

The same goes for the other looming proposal, of a multilateral get-together over the Eastern Mediterranean (over the blue-print of the existing East Med Gas Forum); such ideas are easy to throw on the table, intricate to deal with.