The EU is entering a new phase, trying to find balance in the shadow of post-election uncertainty in the United States that could escalate into a political crisis. A crisis that could have unpredictable consequences on the international stage, especially in the vicinity of Europe, where crisis hotspots are already testing Europe’s resilience. In this new context, the question of what Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey will do becomes crucial to geopolitical developments in the wider region, from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East to the Caucasus, and opens a new round of discussions in European capitals.
The worst-case scenario for Greece is that Ankara escalates its provocations further while uncertainty remains in Washington through its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. All this despite risking being isolated from the EU and NATO.
The best-case scenario refers to the continuation of the current situation. Turkish seismic survey vessels scan the Greek continental shelf, always east of the 28th meridian, at the border of the Greek EEZ with Egypt and in the Cypriot EEZ as well, as we wait for the emergence of a new German initiative before the EU summit in December.
The prospect of Joe Biden being in power in the United States is already testing the declining strength of the Turkish economy. The Democrats’ stance on imposing sanctions concerning the S-400 issue, and more generally on Tayyip Erdoğan’s policy in the wider region and inside Turkey, is causing concern in Ankara as to what is next for relations with the United States. Without the sui generis friendship of Donald Trump, it is doubtful whether Tayyip Erdoğan can withstand the wave of pressure from Congress. Consequently, he is unlikely to have the privilege of NATO and the EU relations following such aggressive policies.
Until the political scene in Washington clears up, the institutional say in bilateral relations with Ankara lies with the State Department. Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is in regular contact with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, directly or through the US Ambassador in Greece Geoffrey Payat, as well as with Republican senators (Menendez, Casey, Ready, etc) who have promoted their resolutions on the issue of Turkey.
In parallel, along with trying to maintain communication with Washington throughout this transitional period in the US, Nikos Dendias is making a new effort to bring Athens closer to the other European capitals. As he stated after his visit to Berlin, there is going to be “a very broad information campaign on the Ankara challenges” ahead of the European Summit (December 10-11) where the German presidency is expected to present its proposal for a new framework for the EU-Turkey relations.
German diplomacy under Heiko Maas seems completely incapable of advancing the decisions taken at October’s Council to de-escalate tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. The problem with Heiko Maas, however, seems to be broader, as according to the Der Spiegel, the diplomatic implications of the cancellation of his meeting with Nikos Dendias, due to quarantine, are spanning to the situation that has developed in the USA, to which he does not want to refer. Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be equally puzzled in the face of the new problems with the EU-Turkey relations that have arisen after the Islamist attacks in France and Austria.
The passive stance of Berlin towards Ankara was directly criticised for the first time by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias. During a discussion hosted by the London School of Economics he emphasised that “keeping an equal distance between someone who is in the European family and someone who is not, between someone who respects European values and someone who does not, does not show leadership skills”. At the same event, the minister pressed forward the Greek view on the Turkish problem, saying that “Ankara is doing everything it can to confirm those who believe that it has become a systemic threat to the west.”
A similar approach to the role of Turkey is now openly expressed by France and Austria, which consider Tayyip Erdoğan’s policy to be destabilising the EU, and they are pushing Berlin to stop making promises to Ankara and table the issue of Islamist terrorism at the December summit. According to the plan of Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the issue of EU-Islam relations is an issue to be discussed in the second half of 2021. However, a strong bloc of EU countries is being formed which wants to speed up the debate and for decisions to be taken at the last 2020 meeting.
Under these circumstances, it is estimated, according to diplomatic sources, that the Greek positions are strengthened against the arguments put forward in the previous meetings by the countries that are aligned with Germany and insist on the “positive agenda” in order not to further aggravate the situation with Turkey. Crucial for shaping new balances in the EU against Ankara is considered to be the stance of the old countries of the European north (Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland), which in the past moved between the different approaches of Germany and France.
The third testing field for Greek diplomacy is the deepening of cooperation at the regional level. Next week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to pay another visit to Athens, while at the level of foreign ministers, further strengthening of contacts with countries facing Turkey’s aggressive policy in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East is being discussed.
The tripartite and multilateral partnerships that have developed in recent years are acting as a catalyst during this critical period, and the best example for this is the visit of EU Council President Charles Michel to Cairo and the meeting with President Al Sisi on establishing a forum of European and Muslim countries to combat extremism.