The escalation of tension with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean poses obvious dangers, which however pale in comparison to future risks. What are the main trends shaping tomorrow’s conditions in the region?
First, the gradual withdrawal of the United States will likely continue even under an administration led by Joe Biden, though in a far more orderly manner than under Donald Trump. A domestic US majority opposes interventions in the Middle East, and growing US energy self-sufficiency minimizes dependence on the region’s oil. Curbing the influence of China (and Russia, under Biden) and Islamist terrorism will remain the strategic priority of the US in the region. For this reason, the US will seek to keep Turkey in the Western camp, showing tolerance for its transgressions and without illusions about its credibility.
Second, the situation in the Εastern Mediterranean and the Middle East is more likely to worsen than to improve. Tens of millions of poor and unemployed young people will feed the expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Recep Tayyip Erdogan positions himself as patron. His role in undermining their regimes unites Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia against Turkey. The expanding influence of political Islam and Turkey in North Africa (prominently but not exclusively in Libya and Tunisia) has also mobilized France against Turkey. Additionally, in Israel, currently an important ally of Greece, forces seeking greater convergence with Turkey could prevail.
Third, fossil fuel markets are on a relative decline, for reasons including US energy self-sufficiency and the European Union’s shift to green energy. Any deep deposits in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean are likely to face an adverse market environment; the window for their extraction and development is closing. The decline of oil could destabilize countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, pillars of the anti-Erdogan alliance.
Fourth, Turkey itself is a country of rapid population growth relative to Europe and Greece; its middle class will grow (even as parts of it slip into poverty), and its economic and military power will expand. Aggressive anti-Western Muslim nationalism is now endemic in Turkish society, and likely to survive beyond Erdogan.
Despite these negative trends, a main positive prospect concerns the EU, which remains Greece’s steady ally and partner in the long run. Developments are being driven by the EU’s growing geopolitical “obligations” in neighboring regions, either to fill the vacuum left by the US or to stem the growing influence of actors such as Turkey and Russia. The EU has no interest in remaining powerless in the face of a burning Middle East, nor trapped in an escalating cold war-style confrontation with China – although China will be bringing the US and the EU closer together. The EU will also seek to revive relations with Russia, led by Germany and France, with the aim of overcoming Central-Eastern European resistance and facilitated by Brexit. A question mark in the equation, Russia so far has been using Turkey to divide NATO and European political forces to divide the EU.
Under such circumstances, the EU remains Greece’s most dependable ally. Despite the differences between Germany and France, the EU is moving toward a rules-based (rather than purely transactional) partnership with Turkey, based on a combination of incentives and sanctions. It needs a working relationship with Turkey: because trade interdependency is strong (as it is with Greece), but also because Turkey is a necessary partner of the EU on energy, security and migratory flows. The French logic of containing Erdogan will be combined with the German logic of (balancing) engagement of Turkey.
Therefore, the EU will not be drawn into a confrontation with Turkey, not least because that would exacerbate anti-European sentiment in Turkish society, further fueling Erdogan’s nationalist-populist narrative. But it will use all the levers to pressure the financially weak Erdogan into constructive dialogue with Greece.
When President Erdogan withdraws the repeated rhetorical provocations, the research vessels and the warships, and on this condition alone, a window of opportunity for dialogue will open, with the potential to resolve bilateral disputes. The window will not remain open for long. Any postponement under the “doctrine of inaction” will work directly against Greece’s national interests.
* George Pagoulatos is professor of European politics and economy at the Athens University of Economics & Business, visiting professor at the College of Europe and director general at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).