Will Either Macron or Erdogan Back Down in the Eastern Mediterranean?

World Politics Review, 09.09.2020
Iyad Dakka, académico (Centre for Modern Turkish Studies-Carleton University)

Turkish President Erdogan and French President Macron at a news conference in Istanbul. (AP/Lefteris Pitarakis).

French President Emmanuel Macron has clearly decided to up the ante in a standoff with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, where France is backing Greece and Cyprus in their dispute with Ankara over natural gas reserves and maritime boundaries. First, Macron ordered a temporary reinforcement of French aerial and naval assets to the Eastern Mediterranean in mid-August, in response to Turkish ships resuming controversial gas exploration activities south of Cyprus. Then, he went as far as to frame his actions as a “red line policy” in order to show President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he meant business.

Although France’s military escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean was largely symbolic, since it only committed two additional Rafale fighter jets and one naval vessel, it still raises the risks of a direct military clash between two NATO members. The French and Turkish navies, after all, nearly came to blows in June after a French ship under NATO command, which was enforcing a U.N.-imposed arms embargo on Libya, attempted to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged vessel that was being escorted by three Turkish warships off the Libyan coast.

All this has enraged Erdogan, who, in a thinly veiled reference to France, warned last month that “no one should think of themselves as a giant in the mirror.” Erdogan views France as a has-been power and an unwelcome meddler in an area outside its rightful sphere of influence. The tensions over waters in the Eastern Mediterranean also fit into Erdogan’s nationalist, neo-Ottoman narrative, which portrays Western countries as untrustworthy partners that seek to prevent Turkey’s rightful reemergence as a regional power.

The risk, of course, is that both Turkey and France increasingly see the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean as a zero-sum game. The expansive chessboard, stretching from North Africa to the Levant, was once an area of competing Ottoman and French imperial control. Although they have been NATO allies for decades, Turkey and France have little shared interests in the region these days, and on some issues even look more like geopolitical adversaries.

But what does Macron really hope to achieve with this bolder stance against Erdogan? To begin with, the Eastern Mediterranean basin still figures prominently in French geopolitical thinking. After a summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in late August, Macron reaffirmed that France will always identify as “a Mediterranean power.” With its colonial legacy, France still has significant cultural and economic influence in the littoral regions of North Africa and the Levant.

France also views its long-term military footprint in the Mediterranean as an important element of its national defense and security strategy, and as a springboard for power projection. To this end, Macron’s recent flexing of military muscle follows a gradual French buildup in the Eastern Mediterranean. The French navy has conducted a variety of joint training exercises with the Greek and Cypriot navies, as well as other regional partners, in the past two years. In May 2019, Paris and Nicosia signed an agreement allowing French naval vessels to be hosted at Cyprus’ Mari naval base. And a new defense cooperation agreement that France and Cyprus signed in 2017 came into force last month.

Macron’s strategic objective is to challenge the current balance of naval power in the region, which, in an era of American retrenchment, currently favors Turkey. Over the past decade, Turkey has invested heavily in building its naval strength and its own naval production capabilities. Erdogan has also adopted a more strident and nationalist naval doctrine known as “Blue Homeland,” which aims to protect Ankara’s maritime interests in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas. The worry in Paris, Athens and other European capitals is that Turkey aims to leverage its naval strength to impose a new order in the Eastern Mediterranean, turning it into what some officials call a “Turkish lake.”

There is also an economic angle. Earlier this year, France requested membership in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, a recently formed group that includes Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority—though not Turkey. The EMGF aims to develop the region’s gas market to meet member states’ own energy needs and export gas at competitive prices to the EU. Naturally, French oil and gas companies want a piece of the pie. French energy giant Total has obtained joint gas exploration permits with the Italian company Eni in Cypriot waters, as well as in Greek and Lebanese coastal waters. A more assertive geopolitical role could boost France’s influence around the table as complex negotiations to extract, market and transport gas from the Eastern Mediterranean continue.

Finally, remember that Macron has staked his presidency in part on the promise of strengthening the European Union and bolstering its “strategic autonomy.” To this end, an unchecked Turkish presence on the EU’s immediate periphery would further convince the world, and many Euroskeptics in Europe, that the EU cannot be counted on as a legitimate geopolitical actor. Macron wants to paint Erdogan as the external bogeyman in an effort to strengthen the EU’s cohesiveness as a distinct political and strategic project.

While Macron understands that not all EU members are comfortable with committing military assets to the region, he has repeatedly pushed the EU to sanction Turkey in an effort to pressure Erdogan. This is a tricky ask, since many European governments continue to view the Mediterranean tensions through the lens of a decades-old Greek-Turkish conflict, both over a divided Cyprus and rival maritime claims. There is a concern that France’s “red line” approach will only complicate the situation.

Plus, there are broader geopolitical factors at play. As a NATO ally, Turkey can still theoretically put a check on Russian ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, even if Erdogan has cultivated closer ties with Moscow. NATO is reportedly working hard on facilitating military-level talks between Greece and Turkey to avoid an escalation, while the United Nations is seeking a diplomatic solution.

But there are indications that Macron’s campaign to push back on Turkey’s aggressiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean is beginning to bear some fruit in Brussels. On Aug. 28, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned Ankara that it could face economic sanctions if diplomatic efforts fail before the next EU summit on Sept. 24. It seems EU members are gradually coming around to Macron’s view that diplomacy without a credible coercive option is a waste of time. The French are working hard behind the scenes to put a range of potential economic measures on the table later this month.

That being said, EU sanctions require unanimity, and a common will to enforce them, so tougher EU rhetoric won’t necessarily translate into economic sanctions against Turkey. Macron also knows that any sustainable EU pressure on Erdogan must go through Berlin, the EU’s leading economic power. Germany has so far resisted French calls for sanctions against Turkey, with Merkel preferring to focus on diplomacy and de-escalation.

The silver lining is that despite all the brinkmanship, neither France nor Turkey truly wants a military conflict. And all sides in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece and Cyprus, continue to stress the need for dialogue and negotiations to resolve the dispute over drilling rights and competing maritime claims. Nonetheless, as shrewd political operators always looking for leverage, both Macron and Erdogan are loath to let a good crisis like the one in the Mediterranean go to waste.

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