“We almost went to war with Turkey three times last year.” This close did the Eastern Mediterranean come to erupting into conflict during the Summer of 2020. What’s more, this grim assessment did not originate in one of the conflict-stricken states bordering Turkey’s eastern and southern borders. It came from Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos.The question must therefore be addressed, how a dispute initially concerned with resource exploitation could almost escalate into an outright military confrontation.
Realising conflict was only narrowly averted on Europe’ southern frontier may have caught some observers off-guard. Still adhering to the post-Cold War belief in Liberalist determinism, many Western policymakers have taken the ability of multilateral organisations to guarantee peace for granted. While institutions like the European Union (EU) may be suited to facilitate market integration, the bloc has with its unregulated engagement fallen woefully short in contributing to the security of its members. The close call witnessed in the EastMed should therefore serve as an urgently needed wake-up call!
Recent Developments in the EastMed: Old Rivalries and New Alliances
The (southern) periphery of Europe is in a state of unrest not seen since the Second World War! Ideally, EU executive institutions and member states would realise that a divided foreign policy will leave them frustrated in every endeavour. Worse still, disunity offers ready-made avenues for authoritarian leaders to selectively challenge member states. In the absence of European solidarity, individual member states will be forced to rely on outside powers to guard against external threats. The risks of such a trend are manifold, not least because conflicting entanglements with third states may further fracture EU cohesion.
Returning to the introductory quote, the case of Greece illustrates succinctly where a lack of EU cohesion leaves the bloc’s peripheral members. Not being able to rely on the bloc to protect itself from rising dangers in the region, Greece was left scrabbling for alternative ties outside its Western alliances. This development was further compounded by the US’ disengagement from the region, which precipitated the emergence of rivalling alliance systems.
Perceiving Turkey as an existential threat, Greece naturally joined a coalition that opposed Ankara’s revisionist ambitions. In pursuit of active deterrence, the Hellenic Republic has gradually built up bilateral and trilateral ties as a foundation for a fully-fledged regional alliance. The emerging coalition stretches from the Hellenic Republics of Cyprus and Greece to Israel and Egypt over the Arabian Peninsula (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain) all the way to India.
Of all these ties, the Greek relationship with the UAE has seen the most progress. Under the de facto leadership of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the Emirates have taken a firm stance against Turkish support of Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. United in their opposition of Ankara’s destabilising role in the region, MBZ agreed to establish a formal defensive with Athens this past November. For Greece, this marks a major step towards renewed engagement with its eastern neighbourhood, seeing as it constitutes the first agreement of this type outside the Western alliance framework (EU-NATO).
Future prospects: Stronger European Cohesion or Further Fragmentation?
The latest effort by Greece to cement itself within a new regional stability framework was the “Philia Forum” held on the 13th and 14th of February 2021. It brought together in Athens the Foreign Ministers (FM) of Cyprus, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, with the French FM attending virtually as an observer. The conferences laid out a broad range of economic and social domains on which the attendees pledge to cooperate. However, the broader implications the summit carried were unmistakable, seeing as from cooperation on peripheral domains would invariably follow closer coordination on matters of defence. The primary target attending countries intended to deter did not fail to take note of this development. The response from Ankara was the usual polemic rhetoric: Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy accusing participating countries of harbouring “hostility against Turkey”.
On a broader scale, it must be asked where these developments on its very doorstep leave the EU. Although Greek efforts to solidify its deterrence have so far proven successful, there is no telling when tensions will once again spiral out of control. The only way to sustainably reduce tensions is for EU members to start conducting a more cohesive foreign policy. Members states should – for a start – terminate exports of military material in support of expansionist third states, especially if they threatened fellow member states. Coordinating such a transition falls to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. It is high time for her to fulfil her promise of a “geopolitical Commission” and realise a united European approach to external threats.