Donald Tusk, the Polish-born former Prime Minister of his home country and now-outgoing President of the European Council, used one of his public addresses in his current capacity to slam Turkey and its authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after Ankara threatened to begin new unlawful drilling activities within Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
”Turkey’s continued illegal drilling activities only undermine good neighbourly relations between the EU and Turkey,” Tusk said in a tweet before adding that Brussels stands fully behind Cyprus and its territorial integrity.
The EU’s support for the Cypriot government was self-evident from the the start as Cyprus is a full EU member. Tusk’s forceful tone was, however, was notable at this stage now that the EU’s often fraught relationship with Turkey has, once again, come to the forefront as a a new refugee crisis that could eclipse what was seen in the summer of 2015 could be on the horizon after Erdogan threated to “open the gates of hell” and allow hundreds of thousands of refugees flood into Greece if the West criticises his invasion of northern Syrian.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in cooperation with his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiadis, met with Tusk and decided to discuss Turkey. This decision was also met with satisfaction in Athens where Mitsotakis was hosting US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo over the past weekend to sign a landmark bilateral defence treaty between the US and Greece,
Pompeo’s messages were clear when it came to Turkey, saying, “We’ve made clear that operations in international waters are governed by a set of rules. We’ve told the Turks that illegal drilling is unacceptable and we’ll continue to take diplomatic actions to ensure that lawful activity takes place,” he said in a press briefing. “No country can hold Europe hostage”, he added.
The Greek government was extremely pleased the signing of the renewed Mutual Cooperation Defense Agreement with the US, which dated back to 1990. Is newest version calls for a larger contingent of American troops, ships and drones in many “key” areas in Greece. This will upgrade the bilateral cooperation of the two countries.
The deal, however, appears to have taken gone down an unexpected road after, President Donald J. Trump and Erdogan spoke on 6 October and gave the latter the green light to proceed with offensive military operations that included an invasion of northern Syria to attack the US-allied, anti-ISIS armed forces of the Kurds. Erdogan, whose Islamist AKP party has repeatedly said that the pro-Western Kurdish defence forces are a terrorist group that is equal to ISIS and al-Qaeda due to their hostility towards the Turkish government, claims he will create the a so-called “safe-zone” on the Syria side of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Erdogan’s invasion and Trump’s endorsement of the Turkish narrative was not something that Mitsotakis had anticipated. His interview with the Washington Post on 25 September while in New York for the UN General Assembly revealed as such when he said, “Erdogan wants a buffer between Turkey’s Kurds and Syria’s Kurds — a safe zone populated by Sunni Arabs. That’s his goal. It’s highly unlikely that the Americans or Europeans will agree to his proposition.”
No equal distances
In the weeks since his conversation in the Washington Post, Mitsotakis has rightfully accused NATO of keeping “equal distances” when it came to Greece and Turkey, despite the Turks’ regular contravention of international law.
“I think that this tactic of equal distances might be anticipated, but it is unfair to Greece because at this moment it is the victim of blatant contraventions of international law as a result of violations by Turkey” Mitsotakis said during NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Greece.
The Greek government is trying to draft contingency plans while the situation remains unpredictable and fluid. At the same, Athens’ is keeping in mind that a new humanitarian crisis from Syria may lead to increased migratory flows through Turkey to Greece. This, of course, will once again test the overpopulated refugee facilities on the Greek islands and on the mainland, where thousands of asylum seekers are in the process of being transferred to. Greek government officials seem to be concerned about the Americans giving the nod to the Turks to unilaterally invade northern Syria with thousands of troops, armoured units, and air support. This flies in the face of the guarantees that Pompeo reiterated when he gave the Greek government a guarantee that the US would at as a stabiliser in a turbulent part of southern Europe.
Mitsotakis, however, is not at this time thinking of asking his allies in Washington and Brussels for a new sanctions regime for Turkey, despite the fact that Mitsotakis’ erstwhile political enemy, former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, specifically asked for a new round of sanctions that target the Turkish leadership during a TV interview on 10 October. Mitsotakis, however, said that any action against Turkey will be discussed with the rest of the EU and a coordinated response could be carried out if the rest of the EU agrees.
Given this new reality in Greece’s broader neighborhood, the government is taking measures that would better safe-guarding the Hellenic Republic’s borders with intensified patrols by the coast-guard and all government facilities have added additional police personnel as there is a feat that ISIS or other radical Islamist sympathisers could make there way into to Greece from Turkey if Erdogan follows through on his threats and opens the border.
High-level government officials remain in a holding pattern and are awaiting the next phase in the unfolding and highly volatile situation is volatile as the extent of the Turks’ attack on Kurdish population centres remains to be seen.
With the situation in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone and the Aegean Sea still tense, no one can with any certainty say that Turkey will suddenly halt its confrontational and destabilising regional policy. Mitsotakis will not have to call for a unified European position while taking into consideration that France and Italy have economic interests in Cyprus and France’s Total and Italy’s ENI are involved in drilling activities. France, especially, is expected to maintain a hard stance against Turkey as it has done in the past. Greek and French officials are, therefore, most likely to be in lock-step with one another moving forward.