Turkey-EU Relations: A Bumpy Path

By Dr. Sibel Zengin

The discovery of substantial energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean within the last decade has raised hopes while also paving the way for a fast-changing regional environment. A resource-poor Europe now regards the entire area as a perfect zone for its ever-increasing hunger for energy. Turkey has an advantageous geographical position that makes it a natural trading hub for energy transportation to Europe. But basically, the EU has built its maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean around its member states. It accepted the island of Cyprus into the Union in 2004 as if there were no border disputes and now defines the Mediterranean waters that surround the whole island, along with Greek waters in the Aegean Sea, as its external maritime boundaries. However, these waters overlap with areas also claimed by Ankara with an aim to protect the interests and rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. While Ankara has accused the EU of taking sides with the maximalist approach of Greece, the EU has gone even further and closed ranks to sideline Turkey – a country with the longest coastline along the eastern Mediterranean – by excluding it from regional collaborative efforts such as the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and EastMed Pipeline.

Since late 2019, the region has been rocked by fierce competition and escalating turbulence in the face of unprecedented challenges, compounded by long-standing disputes over Cyprus and the Aegean between Turkey and Greece. Grounded on the Blue Homeland naval doctrine, Turkey has brought up soft and hard power instruments in a two-pronged approach to balance the new regional threat landscape. Ankara’s Maritime Boundary Delimitation Agreement with Libya became a critical turning point. In addition, its seismic exploration and drilling activities in the waters, over which Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration claim jurisdiction, were found provocative by the EU, prompting it to reassess its policies against Turkey. This ultimately triggered potential heavy sanctions, which were postponed at the EU Council Meeting in December 2020 and will be discussed again at the European Council in March.


Indeed, a greater level of aggression on the parts of Greece and France has created a double-edged sword for Turkey. For quite a long time, France has been at odds with Turkey over the Syrian and Libyan conflicts. Being a major power in the EU, it regards the Mediterranean as a special zone of influence for its historical strategic linkages and realpolitik interests. That is why Paris is constantly escalating its engagement in the broader region to counterbalance a rising Turkey. French military deployment in the eastern Mediterranean, joint military exercises with allied member states and other regional actors, as well as the latest French- Greek deal on Rafale fighter jets demonstrate the risks of a higher level conflict as the chessboard takes shape for a new power competition.

Furthermore, with a possible return to the pre-Trump era, the incoming Biden administration is most likely to engage broadly with the Middle East region in an effort to rebuild American power and enhance U.S. influence. Biden’s first call to French President Emmanuel Macron, instead of Germany’s Angela Merkel, reveals that he wants to act jointly with an ambitious actor in the region, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. After Biden’s election, the Union also declared its willingness to act together with the Biden administration against Turkey. In fact, the U.S.’s decision to sanction Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) because of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system, as well as lifting the arms embargo against Greek Cyprus, show that the U.S. has already picked its side in the eastern Mediterranean crisis.

On the other hand, most member states of the EU remain cautious and do not reflect a clear united stance on sanctioning Turkey. Germany, which has so far played a mediator role between Turkey and Greece, is simply reluctant to take a firm stance. Given that no harsh sanctions seem to be in the cards for the March meeting, it is doubtful that Merkel’s stable politics will continue after her departure in September this year. Last month, Turkey and Greece launched direct exploratory talks after a five-year gap, but these talks also seem to be only to reduce the tensions or prevent any possibility of a military confrontation between the two NATO members, instead of a sound resolution in the ongoing problems.

With the new year, Turkey has optimistically stressed its objective of EU membership and of improving its relations with the bloc. After a difficult 2020 in relations, Brussels has reciprocally offered a “positive agenda” with Turkey, too. Indeed, the eastern Mediterranean conflict is unlikely to be resolved without consensus, political will and ability for dialogue. To achieve this, Turkey needs to engage more in effective diplomacy with the EU and all key regional actors.

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