EU in talks with Turkey as tensions mount over maritime deal with Libya

Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is pictured in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus. (File/Reuters)
Updated 05 December 2019

EU in talks with Turkey as tensions mount over maritime deal with Libya

  • The Turkish government has claimed its actions are based on international law
  • Greece, Cyprus and Egypt have dismissed the deal as “illegal” as it ignores the presence of the Greek island of Crete between the Turkish and Libyan coasts

ANKARA: The EU’s top foreign representative on Thursday held talks with his Turkish counterpart as tensions continued to mount over a controversial deal on maritime boundaries signed between Turkey and Libya.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, met with Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Slovakian capital Bratislava to discuss the agreement which aims to delimit maritime zones in the eastern Mediterranean.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) inked between Ankara and Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), has further deepened a regional dispute over Turkey’s energy exploration plans for the waters.

The deal now has to be approved by the Turkish and Libyan parliaments for drilling operations to begin. According to a leaked report on Wednesday, the MoU covers a continental shelf reaching 18.6 nautical miles from the Turkish coast, referred to by Ankara as “Blue Motherland.”

The Turkish government has claimed its actions are based on international law, but Greece, Cyprus and Egypt have dismissed the deal as “illegal” as it ignores the presence of the Greek island of Crete between the Turkish and Libyan coasts.

However, Turkey has said that islands situated on the opposite side of the median line between the two mainlands, did not possess any right to establish their own maritime jurisdiction areas.

Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been in conflict with the GNA in Tripoli, on Wednesday also strongly condemned the maritime deal and called on the UN Security Council to intervene.

He described the GNA as “brain dead” and argued that it had no authority to sign such agreements.

In the meantime, Brussels, which may proceed with some punitive measures in response to any “unauthorized” drilling, is trying to use diplomatic channels to resolve the situation.

But the day before Borrell’s meeting with Cavusoglu, Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez resolutely announced Ankara’s plans to launch oil and gas exploration in the region soon.

Turkey is not a signatory to the 1982 UN convention regulating maritime boundaries (UNCLOS).

Unal Cevikoz, a former Turkish ambassador and currently serving as deputy for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said: “If Turkey could have agreed with Egypt and Israel in the past over the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas, it would be possible to prevent now any challenges related to the energy resources of the eastern Mediterranean.

“Ankara hasn’t nominated yet any ambassador to Egypt, Syria and Israel, which are countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, and this deal pushed Turkey into a conflict zone where two governments in Libya clash with each other, rendering Ankara a party of this war,” he said in a statement.

Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, in England, said: “Turkey, by moving ahead with the deal on the Mediterranean Sea with the GNA, unambiguously inserts itself as an important player in the Libyan conflict.

“Turkey was widely believed to be supporting the GNA prior to Haftar’s campaign to capture Tripoli, and has been linked with arms transfers to the GNA, but this diplomatic deal reinforces its alignment with Libya’s GNA government,” he told Arab News.

Ramani added that the timing of Turkey’s actions was interesting, as Haftar was coming under growing pressure from the US and other members of the international community to abandon his military ambitions, which increased the GNA’s short-term security as a fighting force.

“So, Turkey is stepping up its role to increase its long-term influence over the GNA and compete for reconstruction contracts,” he said.

For some experts, Turkey’s backdown on its threat to block NATO plans for the Baltics at its London summit, was aimed at giving Ankara the upper hand in future negotiations on its other plans, including those in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Turkey definitely viewed the NATO summit as a victory for its foreign policy, and its decision to lift the blockade on eastern European aid illustrated these sentiments,” Ramani said.

Meanwhile, Cyprus is set to launch legal action at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague against Turkey’s exploratory gas drilling in waters where the Greek Cypriots claim exclusive economic rights.

According to Ramani, Turkey will try and channel the EU’s potential punitive measures toward Greek Cypriot drillers, while Cyprus’ ICJ case blames Turkey.

Ramani added: “If the ICJ rules in Cyprus’ favor, then sanctions are a possibility, but for now, it will likely remain a threat from the EU rather than a geopolitical reality.”

Former Lebanese FM Gebran Bassil comes under fire at Davos panel

Updated 3 min 17 sec ago

Former Lebanese FM Gebran Bassil comes under fire at Davos panel

  • Bassil, who has been the target of protesters' anger, was speaking on a panel named “The return of Arab Unrest”
  • CNBC's Hadley Gamble, who moderated the discussion, put pressure on Bassil over his comments on governance

DAVOS: Lebanon’s new government needs to win the confidence of the parliament, the confidence of the people, and the confidence of the international community, former Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil said at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday.

In a much-anticipated panel discussion plagued by controversy and uncertainty since its announcement, Bassil appeared despite a social media campaign and petition calling for his invitation to be rescinded. 

He said the country was in its current position because of 30 years of “wrong policies.”

“The responsibility of the Lebanese government is to take the challenge of changing and reforming the system,” he said. “What is happening now in the streets is very positive because it is creating a dynamic for change.”

Joining Bassil for the discussion — “The return of Arab Unrest” — were Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag and Damac Properties chairman Hussein Sajwani. 

Kaag spoke of the importance of Lebanon as a “regional public good in a volatile region” saying the country has “so much to offer.” However, she added, “It is so painful to see a model of consensual democracy turn away to provide a disservice.

“One should not need wasta,” she continued, referring to the Arabic word for influence and/or bribery. “Wasta is a total sign of poverty, whereby only if you have means, access, and influence, you are someone.”

Gebran Bassil, a hate figure for Lebanese protesters, was grilled by Hadley Gamble during a Davos panel. (WEF)

Panel moderator, CNBC anchor Hadley Gamble, did not hold back when questioning the former foreign minister, repeatedly reminding him of his infamous quote at Davos last year, when he said, “Washington and London should maybe learn from Lebanon how to run a country without a budget.”

Bassil’s spokesperson May Khreish had earlier accused Gamble of being part of “a Zionist campaign against Bassil's participation in the conference.”

“We have a malfunctioning system because of confessionalism. What the young people are calling for in the streets is a secular system whereby citizens are equal,” Bassil said.

He also expressed his hope that Lebanon’s current crisis could be resolved in-house. “Let the people of the region decide what they want,” he said. “Don’t dictate to them foreign recipes. Let the international community help not dictate.

“Lebanon is still a democracy — we have a high level of freedom and they are encouraged to keep this force of change, and when they decide we don’t represent them anymore, we step aside,” he continued, referring to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government resigning a few weeks after the start of the protests in October 2019.

Damac boss Sajwani suggested that the general public in the region did not treat democracy with appropriate gravitas. “The challenge we have in the Middle East is that people are not being professional when it comes to elections,” he said. “They are going by emotions and religion, which is totally unacceptable.”

Kaag praised the determination and persistence of Lebanon's youth. “The specter of possible civil war will not work anymore (as a deterrent for protests),” she said.

Lebanon’s new coalition government was formed on Tuesday after almost 100 days of widespread public protests about the state of the economy, corruption, high unemployment and a lack of basic services. The majority of its 20 ministers are aligned with Hezbollah and its allies.