The United Kingdom is unable to adequately respond to many problems, it has a historical responsibility to address around the world as it flounders in the endless Brexit issue and, like the rest of the world, battles with COVID19. In other words, as it uses up its energy on its own domestic issues, the country has stepped back from making decisions that will present important opportunities for itself. Topping the list of these issues is the question of energy and sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey, a problem neither NATO nor the European Union has yet been able to solve. Although the issue may have historical, legal and political dimensions and also has no solution that will satisfy everyone involved, Britain could intervene in the dispute as a historical and political mediator. This approach could prevent a political battle that has erupted in the East Mediterranean and spreads to the Balkans and Europe. And it could help the UK indirectly regain some of its reputation it has lost in recent years.
The East Mediterranean issue and the parties involved
The current dispute fundamentally originates from a battle over resources. The 280-billion-cubic-metre Tamar gas field, which Israel discovered in 2009, and the 620-billion-cubic-metre Leviathan gas field, which it discovered just one year later, drew international attention towards the East Mediterranean. The Greek Republic of Cyprus and Egypt both launched exploration missions in the region immediately afterwards. The Exclusive Economic Zone agreement the Republic of Cyprus signed with Lebanon, Egypt and Israel partitioned the region into 13 discrete parcels, provoking reactions from both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, who claimed that their rights had been violated. The escalating tension in the region has been spurned by Exxon Mobil’s exploration activity in late 2018 in some parcels Greek Cyprus had identified as well as Turkey’s decision, in response, to send the Fatih Drilling Vessel to the Mediterranean with warship escorts. But the actual breaking point arose in November 2019. Turkey signed a maritime boundary treaty with Libya on 27 November 2019 and announced that it considered the region to the south of the Greek islands of Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes to rest on its own continental shelf. The Athens government, however, claimed that the agreement trampled on the principles of international law and violated Greece’s sovereignty rights.
As the two countries’ arguments clash, the Mitsotakih government in Greece, working with an administration inclined towards far-right views despite describing itself as liberal, and the Erdoğan government, which has yielded the East Mediterranean tensions to its anti-West Eurasianist wing and their unrealistic Blue Homeland strategy, have allowed the incident to escalate. France and Italy are using this situation to back Erdoğan’s regime – which they have long been displeased with – into a corner and are crafting the issue into one of domestic politics. Their decision to side with Greece de facto makes the European Union ineffective in the matter. That all the parties in this dispute are NATO members also threatens the Western system of security and balance while the United States, for now, remains engrossed in its own political agenda. The resolution of this problem has gained a degree of importance that transcends the borders of the region.
The actions Britain can take and the obstacles it faces
Although its sphere of influence relies on historical tradition, Britain became an East Mediterranean actor via Cyprus starting in 1878, and it still maintains its status as a guarantor nation in the Cyprus issue. Moreover, the UK government is certainly a part of every effort to ensure that the two societies in the Cyprus issue are able to coexist. This puts the nation at a historically more important role than Germany, which is trying to play the role of mediator in this dispute. Put differently, the UK has historical experience, memory and a role in the region. And the UK has naturally assumed the position of the relatively impartial third party, contrary to the European Union, which is an indirect party to the dispute because of Greece’s membership.
Greece’s demand that the European Union implement sanctions and the problems other EU countries – particularly France – have experienced with the Erdoğan government through diasporas, religion and authoritarianism are no longer valid issues in contemporary UK-Turkish relations. This could convince Turkey to perceive the UK as a somewhat more independent power during potential negotiations and decide to come to the table.
Such a negotiation process could even have greater yields. First, the UK’s ability to convince countries to reach a joint agreement through a negotiating role in such a crisis that concerns the Middle East, Balkans, North Africa and Europe would demonstrate that the Western security system could function despite America’s absence and would bolster the UK’s positive credibility. It will remove the shroud of Brexit that has hung over the country and will later push the UK to cultivate a renewed network of relationships in the regions surrounding Europe, from Eurasia to the East Mediterranean. And this, in the wake of Brexit, could be an opportune starting point for its global role.
If the UK manages to hold negotiations and conclude them successfully, this could represent a remarkable opportunity for Turkey, long considered a ‘problem child’ wedged between Russia, Qatar and China, to once again turn towards the West. It is unclear whether the currently pleasant Erdoğan regime could execute this manoeuvre, due to the Islamist-nationalist and security-driven wings that support the ruling coalition, but Turkey, despite everything, still deserves this credit.
Undoubtedly, what appears to be the greatest hurdle preventing the UK from seizing this historic opportunity is itself. The current government’s own dilemma in the battle with COVID and the extensive Brexit process have caused the UK to bury its head in the sand, and it seems as though it will let these critical opportunities slip through its fingers.
*Ahmet Erdi Öztürk is an Assistant Professor at the London Metropolitan University. Hamdi Fırat Büyük is a Sarajevo-based journalist and political analyst and the managing editor at the FeniksPolitik.