Troubling milestones

By Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Less than three weeks to go until the September 24/25 EU Summit that is to deal with the overall EU-Turkey relationship; that is further to the latest Foreign Affairs Council that discussed Turkish behaviour towards Greece (and Cyprus) and the measures/sanctions put forward were Turkey to stick to its destabilising activity in the East Mediterranean. The Greek Government as well as a large part of Greek media, have construed the Council’s discussion of an array of measures/sanctions as some sort of European ultimatum put to Ankara, to either desist from aggressive behaviour (mainly seismic search over the Greek continental shelf and exploration at Cyprus EEZ conducted with the conspicuous presence of Turkish naval forces) or be faced with escalating sanctions.

There are public pronouncements that make such an understanding of the EU stance plausible – those coming from the French, the Austrians or even from Commission spokespersons – but a more Brussels-savvy crowd expects a different turn of things. High Representative for External Affairs Josep Borrell may have called on Turkey to end drilling in East Med “immediately” and pursue “immediate de-escalation”, but he also made it clear that Turkey is “an important partner” with which “mutual relations should be strengthened”. The September 24/25 Summit agenda will most probably include German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas – Germany, chairing the EU Council, holds the key to the Summit set-up – has been on-the-record that if a diplomatic solution is not found by the time of the Summit, the Union’s dialogue with Turkey will be “extremely problematic” EU Council President Charles Michel has also reiterated “full EU support to Greece and Cyprus” but in the same time declared an intention to strengthen relations with Turkey.

So far, so good – unless one notices that Ankara has extended its declared Navtex for seismic Oruc Reic operations and drilling, respectively in Greek and Cyprus areas for closer to the September Summit, while indications mount that renewed pressure will be put on the refugee/§migration front with renewed human flows at Greek borders. Moves on this field keep going on from the Turkish side; and one should not forget that for Germany and other EU members, this is the matter of major importance.

A troubling dimension has come to the fore with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s initiative to make it known that there was a consent of both parties to engage in technical discussion that would lead to the initiation of a dialogue; Greece was prompt in denying any such intent while Oruc Reis seismic operations were persisting, with Stoltenberg backtracking. But Greece may be putting itself in sort of a diplomatic corner: if stopping Turkish action in the field is the prerequisite for talks to be initiated, and if Ankara is “convinced” though the pressure of allies to take such step (or some steps) back, then how will Athens respond to an offer of a dialogue “with no conditions attached”?

The question may sound innocuous – but Greece accepts only a dialogue over the delimitation of sea zones (continental shelf and EEZ), while Turkey consistently puts far more on the table.

Milestones – such as the Summit of September 24/25 – can prove troubling, even treacherous.