EU expresses ‘full solidarity with Greece’ in standoff with Turkey

Athens pushing for EU sanctions against Turkish government.
Saturday 15/08/2020
Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (Left) speaks to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) surrounded by European leaders at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, last July.  (AFP)
Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (Left) speaks to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) surrounded by European leaders at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, last July. (AFP)

ATHENS, GREECE— The European Union’s foreign policy chief expressed “full solidarity” with Greece and Cyprus and urged a “immediate de-escalation” by Turkey after EU foreign ministers held urgent talks Friday on high military tensions over offshore drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

For the past five days, the Greek and Turkish navies have been engaged in a game of brinkmanship in waters between the Greek island of Crete, Cyprus and Turkey over offshore drilling rights. That followed Ankara’s deployment of a seismic research vessel to prospect for potential oil and gas reserves in waters that Athens claims are located over Greece’s continental shelf.

map greece turkey

Cyprus and Greece are EU members, while Turkey is not. Josep Borrell, the 27-nation bloc’s foreign policy chief, tweeted after the end of the talks: “Eastern Med: Full solidarity (with) Greece&Cyprus. Calling for immediate deescalation by Turkey and reengaging in dialogue.”

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, who also met in Vienna with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said he was “pleased” with the solidarity expressed by his country’s EU partners and their “condemnation of Turkey’s illegal behavior.”

“Turkey is the only (party) responsible for the escalation of tension in the eastern Mediterranean, and it must immediately leave the Greek continental shelf,” Dendias said after Friday’s talks. “That is a necessary precondition for deescalation.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would press ahead with its prospecting until Aug. 23 as planned. But following a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he signaled that Ankara and Berlin had agreed to a “softening” of positions after that date.

There was no indication from Athens whether it had been consulted, or had agreed, on the matter. Merkel had interceded to defuse a similar face-off between Greece and Turkey a few weeks ago.

Erdogan also warned that Turkey would strongly respond to any “harassment” of its vessels by Greece.

Dendias said Greece was open to talks with Turkey, “but obviously not while subject to pressure and blackmail.”

Relations between the historic regional rivals — and nominal NATO allies — have hit a more than two-decade low over the prospecting mission launched Monday.

Greece placed its armed forces on high alert and sent warships to the spot, demanding the vessels’ withdrawal. Turkey claims it has every right to prospect in the area, as well as in neighboring waters Cyprus considers its own, after the discovery of large offshore gas deposits in recent years off Israel, Egypt and Cyprus. Ankara has been flexing muscle in the East Mediterranean towards that end.

A file picture shows Oruc Reis Turkish seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port in Istanbul. AFP
A file picture shows Oruc Reis Turkish seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port in Istanbul. AFP

With the warships dancing about each other in a relatively small patch of sea, there’s a real danger of rapid escalation in the case of an accidental collision or hostile act.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said before the talks that “the provocations” that are happening in the eastern Mediterranean “can’t continue.”

“Nor can the Turkish drilling,” he said. “We are working toward a direct dialogue between the parties that would contribute to finding a solution for this issue.” Maas added that there should be no drilling during any negotiations.

Apart from backing from its EU partners, Athens is also seeking a commitment for potential EU sanctions against Turkey. Dendias said a list of possible sanctions is being drafted and will be discussed at the next foreign ministers’ meeting in Berlin later this month.

In a strong show of support this week, France pledged to boost its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and sent two warships to the area Thursday for joint drills with the Greek navy. France also deployed two fighter planes to Crete.

French relations with Turkey, which is not an EU member, are already bad over Ankara’s involvement in Libya’s war by arming the Islamist-dominated Government of National Accord and sending mercenaries to back it.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted Friday that he spoke to US President Donald Trump about the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Lebanon.

“We share the same views. Peace and security in the region is in our common interest, which we will uphold,” Macron said.

Erdogan said that during his call with Merkel late Thursday, the German chancellor requested a “softening of the issue and to proceed in a more protective understanding.”

Erdogan threatened: “We will not leave unanswered the slightest attack against our civilian ships.”

The Turkish leader also said his country had responded to an incident involving the Turkish research ship Oruc Reis.

Greek officials said they were unaware of any incident Thursday, and the Foreign Ministry said Dendias would brief his EU partners from Vienna on incidents in the area.

A Greek and a Turkish warship were said to have been involved in a mini-collision on Wednesday during a standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean, a Greek defence source said, describing it as an “accident.”

The Turkish Oruc Reis survey ship has been moving between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete, shadowed by a number of Greek frigates. On Wednesday, one of them, the Limnos, was approaching the survey vessel when it came into the path of one of its Turkish naval escorts, the Kemal Reis.

The Greek frigate maneuvered to avoid a head-on collision and in the process its bow touched the rear of the Turkish frigate, the defence source said.

“It was an accident,” the source said, adding the Limnos was not damaged. It subsequently took part in a joint military exercise with France off Crete on Thursday morning.

In Switzerland meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu compalined of EU support to Greece.

“Instead of indulging Greece and giving unconditional support, the EU should invite (Athens) to act with reason,” Cavusoglu told reporters during a news conference with his Swiss counterpart.