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Iordanidis on new Pax Mediterranean and Greek-Turkish dispute [Interview]

12 Mins read

We are entering in a new stage of rivalry on international arena between land powers and maritime powers. Some points on the map thanks to geography are more important because of flows and frictions in international supply chain of goods and geostrategic positions to gain or defend sphere of influence. Today we will know Greek perspective on “New Pax Mediterranean” thanks to journalist Panos Iordanidis.

Historyczny ambasador: In 2018 Cyprus officially agreed to supply Egypt’s LNG plants for export. After Cyprus inked that deal, Israel, which had previously been considering building an Israel-Turkey undersea gas pipeline, followed suit and contracted to sell its gas to Egypt as well. With each Turkish action, the Egypt-Israel-Cyprus-Greece (Energy Triagle) front increasingly gained military support from France, Italy, and the United States, each of which has significant economic investments in Eastern Mediterranean gas. 

In a bid to break out of its regional isolation, in November 2019 Turkey signed its own maritime demarcation agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in war-torn Libya. The deal was an attempt to gain greater legal standing to challenge the maritime borders Greece had established with Cyprus and Egypt, upon which their eastern Mediterranean natural gas development plans depend. The Ankara-Tripoli maritime boundary agreement was accompanied by a military cooperation pact providing the GNA a security guarantee against the efforts of General Khalifa Haftar’s forces, backed by France and Egypt, to topple the Tripoli-based government. After that Greece established an agreement with Egypt on maritime demarcation zones.

The huge deposits of natural gas in the Mediterranean Sea were discovered. They are outside Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone guaranteed by UNCLOS.  Is a lack of economic legal basis to reach those natural gas recourses Turkey is so aggressive in Mediterranean Sea?

PANOS IORDANIDIS: Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean against Cyprus and Greece is a natural progression of an irredentist national strategy that Turkey calls “Blue Homeland”. According to Turkey’s view, maritime zones and sovereign rights in the sea should not be dictated by international law, but from power politics and gunboat diplomacy. After all, Turkey never signed UNCLOS. Regarding the natural gas reserves in the Cypriot EEZ, things get much more complicated. The Republic of Cyprus is not recognized by Turkey and, at the same time, a Turkish military invasion in the northern part of the island holds ground since 1974 despite UN condemnations. At the end of the day though, there is a much more simple answer to what triggers the aggression: Turkey is a regional power and views itself as such. Therefore, it pursues to exercise influence in the broader region in order to establish hegemony, especially in an era of tremendous geopolitical upheaval.

Historyczny ambasador: How MED-7 group react to Turkish violating UNCLOS agreements by doing deal with Libya? How Europe can bring equilibrium in Mediterranean Sea?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: The only MED-7 country that was immediately affected by the maritime deal that Turkey signed with the UN-backed government of Libya was Greece. Athens pursued a strategy of enhancing its regional and global alliances and the EastMed pipeline agreement, as well as the Greece-Egypt delimitation agreement, are the results produced by these anti-Turkish efforts. However, Turkish research vessels and warships are at the present moment in what Greece considers its own continental shelf. Even after the “Pax Mediterranea” approach that was sponsored by France, Turkey continued to support its claims. Europe cannot bring equilibrium in the Mediterranean Sea as long as European countries have conflicting interests. Spain and Italy are enjoying good defense and financial relations with Turkey. Germany considers Turkey an important trading partner. And of course, unity is completely crippled when the blackmail of Turkey with refugee and migrant flows puts pressure on the EU.

Historyczny ambasador: Is Europe afraid to impose strong sanctions on Turkey because of possible new waves of migrants?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Fundamentally, yes. The EU, unable to solve the crisis back in 2016, gave Turkey the power to decide how the game is played regarding migrant and refugee flows. This significant leverage puts EU, and especially Germany, as a natural EU leader, in a difficult position. At the same time, there are countries, as already mentioned, that would not like to disrupt its good relations with Turkey. Unfortunately, the case of Turkish aggression against Cyprus and Greece reveals the lack of unity within the European bloc. Most important of all, it reveals double standards when EU is more eager to impose sanctions on Belarus than Turkey which threatens specific sovereign rights of its member-states.

Historyczny ambasador: The region’s offshore natural gas resources have turned the Eastern Mediterranean into a key strategic arena through which larger geopolitical fault-lines involving the EU and the MENA region converge. French President Emmanuel Macron on the subject of energy cooperation in the East Mediterranean has made a powerful statement calling for a Pax Mediterranea and other sentences that other world leaders, including the government in Greece, have been to afraid to openly and clear state – Turkey is an imperialist country.

We have to create Pax Mediterranea, because we see an imperial regional power coming back with some kind of fantasies of its own history, and I am referring to Turkey” Macron said.

Can European Union be an imperial power and which steps must take to become so?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Taking into consideration the current state of the EU, this is a utopian concept. EU cannot confront internal rivalry, let alone withstand global rivalry against USA and China. Nevertheless, this does not mean that such discussions are not pushing the European project forward. France, under Emmanuel Macron, is constantly contributing towards this direction. In addition, von der Leyen’s geopolitical vision is an ambitious endeavor and it is an essential step for the Union to become more influential. The problem lies within divisions among member-states which probably will continue to pose as a hindrance to a concrete EU working as a whole.

Historyczny ambasador: How important is EMEA region for “imperial Europe”? If Europe would to be an imperial power why is needed to control EMEA region?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Europe, the Middle East and Africa is the region where European powers exercised influence traditionally. Geostrategic and economic reasons, such as access to the open seas and to the mineral resources, as well as historical ones are making EMEA a prominent field a great power needs to control. Competition now is harsh though as China has entered into the game dynamically. Even if conditions were ripe for an “imperial Europe”, it would be difficult at best to prevail over greater powers.

Historyczny ambasador: Eni is the leading partner in Cyprus’s as an infrastructure operator and in Egypt where in 2015 were discovered huge Zohr natural gas filed (biggest in Eastern Mediterranean). Italy’s natural gas development began promoting a plan to pool Cypriot, Egyptian, and Israeli gas and use Egypt’s liquefaction facilities to cost-effectively market the region’s gas to Europe as liquefied natural gas. Eni controls about 45 percent of Libya’s oil and gas production. Works in alignment with Turkey to support the GNA, in whose territory almost all of Eni’s oil and natural gas assets are concentrated. Ankara wants to become a regional energy hub. Turkey’s 2020 military intervention in Libya reshuffled Eni’s geopolitical deck. Now Italy is in Mediterranean energy paradox. Turkey opted for a breakout strategy in Libya to redress its grievances with Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundaries. Turkey’s new outsized military presence in Libya and its growing regional influence have caused alarm in Italy.

Why Italy can’t tolerate the GNA’s dependence on Turkey as a security provider to the extent it will render Eni’s energy interests subject to Ankara’s dictates?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Well, Italy finally tolerated the situation as it is, even though Turkey is rather an “insecurity provider” wherever involved than the opposite. Italy is mostly concerned with the unhindered flow of oil and the containment of migration flows. Stability in Libya will provide those things. That is the reason why Italy supported GNA but also tried to build bridges with Haftar when he had the upper hand in the war. Now, thanks to Turkish military assistance, the situation is kind of balanced between the two sides and Italy can act as a mediator. It will not antagonize Turkey over GNA’s support. A deadlocked situation suits Italy’s interests better. Regarding the matter of Eni, let’s be honest: In the contemporary global system multi-national corporations are strong actors, sometimes even stronger than states. They cannot be dictated that easily. Eni played an important role in acting as a lobbyist between Libyan and Italian governments in the past. Eni’s energy interests will be secured whatever Turkey has in mind. This is not an equation that involves only Italy, Turkey and the GNA but also other major players that are involved in the oilfields.

Historyczny ambasador: How that will influence to cooperation Italy and Turkey in Libya and foremost to response at Greek-Turkish crisis?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Italy will continue to be the legitimization gateway of GNA in the Euro-Atlantic area and Turkey will continue to provide fuel for the war machine. Italy will not interfere militarily and Turkey cannot be a peaceful mediator by any means. For now, there are two separate roles each one has to play in order for the GNA to survive. The question remains though on how each side will act in “the next day” in Libya. I think Turkey is in a more advantageous position with the assistance of the Qatari petro-dollars. Nevertheless, this discussion is still far away. We can say for sure though that the future of Italy-Turkey cooperation in Libya has nothing to do with the Greco-Turkish crisis that is being unfolded now. Italy will not wholeheartedly support any side. It will try to be balanced once again as it has already done in the past: While Italy signed a maritime deal with Greece that forwards Greek interest, at the same time, it is blocking sanctions against Turkey within EU.

Historyczny ambasador: In Algeria, Africa’s top natural gas producer, Eni is one of the leading foreign partners of Algeria’s state oil company Sonatrach. Eni and Sonatrach jointly own the 1,500-mile Trans-Mediterranean pipeline that transports Algerian natural gas via Tunisia to Italy. Natural gas from Algeria and Libya combined account for 28 percent of Italy’s gas imports.

In February 2018, the Turkish navy blocked an Eni ship from reaching its intended drill site in Cypriot waters, forcing the company to withdraw the vessel. In response, Eni brought on the French energy giant Total as a partner in all of its Cyprus operations. In 2018, Eni and Total joined forces in Algeria when the two companies formed a consortium with Sonatrach for the exclusive rights to explore for energy off Algeria’s coast. Within the same time frame, Total acquired significant new oil holdings in Libya without objection from Eni.

What means Franco-Italian cooperation on energy field for European foreign policy and how important it is for consolidate Europe as federation project?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Unfortunately, this is not exactly a “Franco-Italian” cooperation. France and Italy own about 30% of “their” oil companies. It would be much more suitable to say that this is only a Total-Eni cooperation as the interests of the companies are not identical to what states pursue. This has nothing to do with the political project of the EU. It has to do with rivalry and cooperation between multi-national corporations within the globalized free market. Again, I believe that multi-national corporations hold a prominent independent role in the international arena. Maybe we should start to view and study them more systematically, however difficult as it seems, to that extent.

Historyczny ambasador: Is Greece willing to cooperate with Eni and Total in building MedEast pipeline in which are also involved Israel and Cyprus? Which companies are leading in energy sector in Greece and which are goals of Greek energy policy? Apart of energy common interest which other fields are important for Greek-Israeli cooperation in Mediterranean Area?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Greece has already accepted cooperation with Eni and Total through the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. The energy sector in Greece is mostly state-owned and it is not, by any means, an extrovert one, especially compared to those giants. For Greece, the EastMed initiative is rather political than related to energy policy. Greece is concerned with countering Turkish expansionism. The enhanced relations with Israel are of course related to this cause, even more now when Israel views Erdogan’s Turkey as an Islamist power that disrupted traditional ties. The Greek-Israeli cooperation though has also other dimensions such as tourism and culture.

Historyczny ambasador: What are the most important ideas considered in Greece’s domestic policy to increase its security? What is needed to accomplish that or what holds to successfully execute it?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Greece is steadily oriented in large defense spending, as well as in deepening international and regional alliances to increase its security. Greek military is strong and capable of handling traditional threats as it has already proved by intercepting Turkish warplanes almost every day in the Aegean and by reinforcing land borders. At the same time, in the past decade, Greece upgraded its ties with neighbors that share the same security concerns. However, as ironically it may sound, Greece still faces threats from a “fellow NATO ally”. I believe that the next steps of a concrete Greek policy would be to develop an even more multidimensional approach. This will promote its importance as a hub between the West and the rest of the world. Interdependence mechanisms ensure peace and security.

Historyczny ambasador: What is the attitude of ordinary citizens to the conflict against Greece and how is this attitude used by Greek politicians to win votes?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: How the coronavirus pandemic and yet another recession is affecting our lives are much more important issues for the ordinary Greek citizens. The government and mainstream media are paying tremendous attention to a potential conflict, and of course, this is reasonable. The field of Greek-Turkish relations has always offered an opportunity for nationalist sentiments to erupt within society. However, the circumstances are different now. For example, the average Greek citizen is definitely more concerned with the migrant and refugee crisis rather than a potential maritime conflict with Turkey. I am not degrading the importance of the issue but, as it seems, the agenda-setting hierarchy is not something that you would expect here in Greece when you face the probability of conflict. Maybe the ordinary citizens got used to tensions with Turkey the past years, which is a worst-case scenario.

Historyczny ambasador: How Orthodox Church is used in Greece and how important in Greek politics are Russian oligarchs? What energy interest are in common in Russian and Greek relations? Is Russian political and economic influence in Greece growing significantly?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: There is a paradox in Greece: The country has decades of deep relations with western powers, it is a fundamental part of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and seeks to remain in the core of the European institutions, yet still, the people view Russia as a more preferable ally. The Christian Orthodox religion has played a significant cultural role in this matter of course. But still, it cannot act as a channel of communication with Russia because of the rivalry between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian oligarchs have only recently appeared in Greece and have successfully obtained some influence in Greek politics. On the other hand, Greece is trying now to decrease its dependency on Russian gas so it is hard to find common interests or even support a claim of “growing Russian influence”. Nevertheless, such a scenario would find strong supporters in Greece.

Historyczny ambasador: Can Greece be treated as a field for international cooperation between France (a construct of the potential European empire) and Russia (allowing it to break out of isolation) in the era of world with multiple spheres of influence?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Greece has what it takes to support such a role. There are a lot of cultural and geopolitical reasons for the country to be a crossroad between Europe and Russia. That is why I firmly believe in a multidimensional approach in Greek foreign policy in contrast to a fully one-sided western approach that is being followed up until now. Greece can support a lot of mediation initiatives between different civilizations and act as a bridge the same way it has done in the past when acted in such a way between the West and the Arab world.

Historyczny ambasador: How are Chinese investors in Greece perceived by the government, private investors and subcontractors? Does the cooperation with the Chinese run smoothly or do they set their new informal terms of cooperation during the implementation of the won tenders for the implementation of investments? Is Belt and Road Initiative one of most significant economic policies on Greek agenda?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: Chinese investors are being perceived as any other investor in a 10-year-long damaged Greek economy: An opportunity for growth. To that extent, the Greek agenda sets these opportunities high. As far as my knowledge is concerned though, the political implications of the Chinese investments in Greece are not quite visible on the outside and yet not visible on the inside of the country either. The Belt and Road Initiative certainly does not include China’s interference in domestic affairs as it has occurred in Southeast Asia for example. However, the strategic partnership that is being built since COSCO acquired Piraeus port back in 2008 is a matter that cannot be overlooked.

Historyczny ambasador: If there is a war in the Middle East, the Strait of Hormuz will be blocked. Price for a barrel of crude oil would soar above 150 USD. This means the elimination of classic corridors of transportation such as the Suez Canal – there will be a paralysis of economic trade of goods. The heated conflict is beneficial for Russia and Turkey because they are changing the system of security and economic order in the Middle East.

Can we assume that this proxy wars between Russia and Turkey in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and conflict of interest in Mediterranean Sea has a goal to establish a new sphere of influence in entire Middle East changing an economic and security order in the region?

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PANOS IORDANIDIS: This is a very long discussion that is being unfolded during the past years and is part of the question of how a post-liber world order will look like. Taking into consideration the number of proxy wars they are involved in, I believe that Russia and Turkey have found a way of understanding that does not involve any other western power. In other words, out of these conflicts they shape their own regional order, much like establishing spheres of influences. The world is facing colossal geopolitical changes in very little time. This situation contributes to such phenomena that if we look throughout history we will find a lot of similar ones. Let’s not forget though that there will be always a time when the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” would eventually face its contradiction. That is what happened in Syria back in February when the Russian-Turkish entente broke for a moment in Idlib.

Historyczny ambasador: Thank you for all commentaries.

Panos Iordanidis is a journalist based in Athens, Greece dedicated to global politics. He has studied international relations and is active in online media, writing mostly about the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Follow Panos Iordanidis on Twitter

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