Turkey’s Mediterranean disputes should be settled peacefully in court
Saber-rattling in the Eastern Mediterranean could quickly get out of hand. The ongoing simmering disputes are essentially economic, despite the nationalist rhetoric. The common actor in these disputes is Turkey as it tries to fix its severe economic problems.
In 2013, Turkey’s gross domestic product reached a peak of $951 billion, but it fell to $755 billion in 2019, shrinking by 21 percent. The International Monetary Fund expects Ankara’s economy to contract by another 5 percent in 2020. It also expects the inflation rate to stay high at 12 percent and unemployment to exceed 17 percent this year.
Some of this economic pain was self-inflicted and some was due to geopolitical factors, as well as, more recently, the coronavirus disease pandemic. The slowdown was fueled by questions about Turkey’s stability following the 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent crackdown, military interventions abroad, and some questionable economic decisions.
Seemingly haphazard economic decisions, such as the dismissal last summer of Murat Cetinkaya, the Central Bank governor, also riled the markets. He was reportedly fired after clashing over policy with Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law. Cetinkaya’s termination raised questions about the Central Bank’s independence.
Structurally, Turkey’s oil and gas dependency lies at the heart of its economic problems and explains much of its foreign policy, including the Eastern Mediterranean disputes. In 2019, about 75 percent of its energy was imported, including 99 percent of its natural gas, 93 percent of its petroleum and 50 percent of its coal. Those imports represented the largest vulnerability of the Turkish economy, costing about $40 billion in 2019, or about 20 percent of the total value of Turkey’s imports, and accounting for much of the country’s debt and trade deficits.
Turkey’s energy needs explain some of its foreign policy decisions. Its complicated relationship with Russia may be related to the fact that it imports about 40 percent of its energy needs from there. Similarly, despite Turkey’s antipathy toward the Kurds, it maintains a close relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq in order to secure access to its oil supplies.
Turkey’s involvement in Libya can also be seen in this light. With proven reserves of 48 billion barrels of crude oil and 1.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, Libya is capable of satisfying Turkey’s energy needs. These same factors were behind the close relationship Turkey maintained with Libya’s former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, which it continued after his downfall with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, run by Qaddafi’s arch-enemies.
Turkey’s thirst for oil and gas has reached some extremes. Turkey has declined to sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is universally accepted as the main legal instrument on the subject and has been signed by 157 nations. As such, it makes its own rules. For example, in 2002, the Turkish Navy prevented a ship contracted by Cyprus from exploring in the latter’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as defined by the UNCLOS. When, in 2003, Cyprus and Egypt signed a maritime border agreement defining their respective EEZs, Turkey rejected the agreement, claiming that it infringed on its interests.
Between 2002 and 2018, Turkey forcefully prevented Cyprus from exploring for gas. In February 2018, Turkey announced that it was going to explore for gas in Cyprus’ claimed EEZ, while blocking Cyprus-commissioned exploration. Nicosia reacted by making a new deal with ExxonMobil, which was able to start exploring in November that year, escorted by US Navy ships. Turkey persisted with its explorations.
In July 2019, the European Council renewed calls for Turkey to respect Cyprus’ rights in accordance with international law and endorsed Nicosia’s proposal to negotiate with Ankara an agreement on their respective EEZs “in full respect of international law.” To express its displeasure, the European Council also decided to suspend negotiations on an air transport agreement, suspend high-level dialogues and reduce annual economic assistance to Turkey for 2020.
In February, the EU hit Ankara with additional sanctions and, last week, EU foreign ministers reiterated their support for Greece and Cyprus and stressed that the serious deterioration in relations with Turkey was having far-reaching strategic consequences beyond the Eastern Mediterranean. The US also urged Turkey to stop exploration off the Greek islands in the region.
Egypt and Greece this month signed a maritime agreement delineating their respective EEZs, which are believed to hold significant oil and gas reserves. Turkey blasted the agreement, declaring it “null and void.” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis suggested that the dispute be referred to an international court. Turkey had last November signed a maritime agreement with the Tripoli authorities in Libya, but this deal is disputed both within Libya and outside because the Libyan Parliament has not endorsed it. These two maritime agreements are in clear conflict, as they delineate overlapping EEZs.
France last week sent forces to the Eastern Mediterranean to support Greece in its dispute with Turkey. President Emmanuel Macron blamed Turkey for provoking tensions by operating in a zone that France and the EU consider to be exclusively Greek.
Within Turkey’s political opposition, there are those who lament that the country is finding itself “increasingly isolated” and that, in the words of the Ahval news outlet, “it is hard to find much logic in the adventurism of Turkish foreign policy recently, from Libya to Syria, from northern Iraq to the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Within Turkey’s political opposition, there are those who lament that the country is finding itself ‘increasingly isolated.’
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
While it is clear the Eastern Mediterranean disputes are essentially economic, there are also sentimental and historical dimensions to this quarrel. Some are related to Turkey’s lingering resentment of how the 1920 Treaty of Sevres delineated maritime boundaries. Some are related to Turkey’s support of Turkish Cypriots. Ankara is virtually alone in supporting their independence. Greece and Cyprus have their own grievances. And so does everybody else in that area.
Every country involved is losing in these disputes and, if they remain unresolved, they could develop into armed conflicts with incalculable costs to all. The only way to settle them is for the International Court of Justice to adjudicate. Settling border disputes is one of the most important achievements of this highly respected body.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1