Last week’s run-in between a Turkey-flagged cargo ship and an EU maritime patrol, part of Operation IRINI set up to enforce the arms embargo on Libya, demonstrated once again that tensions on the Mediterranean Sea, far from easing, are deepening to worrisome levels. The issues are complex and Libya, a conflict that has exposed fault lines inside the EU, is only one piece in a much larger geopolitical puzzle. In this one incident, we can discern a host of interconnected threads, from badly managed EU expansion to the sidelining of the NATO alliance. So what’s at stake?
Adnan R. Khan: This most recent incident played out under some odd circumstances. What happened?
Ilter Turan: A Turkish ship carrying basic foodstuffs and construction materials to Libya was stopped by an EU force commanded by a Greek admiral. The particular unit that intervened was a German ship and German special forces. The IRINI task force officers to have warned Turkey, which is required under a four hour rule which Turkey has not consented to, but said they did not receive a reply, judging that tacit approval was granted. Then the facts get murky.
Firstly, we must ask: Was there any particular information the EU or its intelligence services possessed suggesting this cargo ship was carrying contraband material? There is no persuasive evidence that this is the case. In fact, the transport company involved is highly reputable and there seems to be absolutely no grounds on which to argue that the vessel should have been searched.
Next, we should ask why this situation was handled the way it was. The IRINI officers argue that the Turkish government was informed of the search and they did not receive a response for four hours, which they interpreted as tacit consent. From what we know, Turkey’s ambassador to Rome asked for a one-hour extension, which was granted. Fifteen minutes after the extension expired, Turkey said no. The EU and the Germans allege that they received the response much later. They initiated action almost an hour after the negative answer had been sent. So, someone must be lying, and it does not appear that it is Turkey.
Lastly, the force that was sent to intercept the cargo ship was commanded by a Greek admiral. It would be optimistic, perhaps naïve, to think he would be so European that he is not influenced at all by his national identity and the interests of his government.
In this case, the Greek commander, like most of his colleagues, is probably highly suspicious of Turks. Even if he is not, still, in conformity with Greek policy, he would likely love to prove that Turkey is doing something wrong. So, I think the IRINI command should have been much more cautious rather than rush to the implementation of this particular decision on, I am sure Greek or possibly French fictitious but manipulative intelligence that turned out to be entirely false.
Adnan R. Khan: Given those conflicting interests, is the EU suited for this mission?
Ilter Turan: This embargo is intended to stop the fighting in Libya which is not an exclusive EU concern. It would have been more appropriate for NAT• to develop formula to monitor shipping weapons to Libya. The problem is that when you have a variety of actors, including the EU discharging these self-given responsibilities, they inevitably act or interpret them in line with the interests of the specific EU member state that claims a stake in the issue.
For example: If the EU is so interested in preventing shipments of arms to Libya, it’s not only Turkish boats that it should be monitoring, but also vessels and aircraft originating from different parts of Europe and the Middle East. The French, to cite one case, are known to have transferred arms to General Haftar’s forces. So, given that no part of this affair is grounded solidly in international law, the ultimate question is: “Why is this all happening?” which opens up a broader set of issues.
Adnan R. Khan: Can you elaborate?
Ilter Turan: What’s happening in Libya is part of a package of conflictual relationships between the EU as a whole, some of its members, and Turkey. We’re all aware of the intense competition taking place in the Mediterranean over exclusive economic zones. There is also competition over who should rule Libya. France and Greece appear to have an interest in pushing for General Haftar whereas Turkey is on the side of the UN-recognized government in Tripoli.
Then there is the Cyprus conflict. Here, the EU violated its own rules by admitting a divided country into the community before it had taken care of its internal problems. Now Cyprus, dragging Greece behind it, is trying to use the EU to achieve its own ends.
Adnan R. Khan: So what recourse does Turkey have now?
Ilter Turan: In this particular case, the Turkish company can go to court and ask for indemnity. Turkey is probably asking for an apology though it is not clear that it will get it. The issue, however, runs much deeper than this one incident. In any disagreement, when one side exercises lawlessness, it invites everyone else to initiate their own lawlessness. So, it’s not a very encouraging development on the part of the EU, especially when it argues, or should I say “pretends,” that it is the bastion of rules-based behavior.