A standoff in the East Mediterranean between Greek and Turkish naval ships – a Turkish energy vessel wanting to hunt for energy off the Greek island of Kastellorizo – has the European Union split over what to do.
Greek Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis wants sanctions and a harder line over Turkish incursions in Greek waters but Germany and the bloc's foreign chief want to walk easy, fearing being too tough will make Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dig in his heels.
Fears of a conflict or all-out shooting war has driven up anxiety in Brussels but not enough for sanctions, with the soft touch group recommending more dialogue although it's failed to move Erdogan off the dime.
There's also worry that, if pushed too hard and too far, that Erdogan will unleash on the bloc – through Greek islands – more refugees and migrants who went to his country fleeing war, strike and economic misery in their homelands.
Greece is already holding more than 100,000 of them, including more than 34,000 on islands near the coast of Turkey, which has let human traffickers send more during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU.
Compounding the dilemma is the refusal of NATO, the defense alliance to which both belong, to stop Turkish provocations, intervene or even to take up issue beyond issuing press releases calling for calm and negotiations, even though Turkey bought Russian S-400 missile defense systems.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany tried shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Ankara and came out with a goose egg for his effort, Turkey accusing him of siding with Greece.
He warned both governments against further military escalation. “Fire is being played with and any small spark could lead to catastrophe,” he said, The New York Times reported in a feature on the explosive dilemma.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel got Erdogan to earlier pull out his ships, he sent them back in when Greece signed a deal with Egypt setting seas boundaries for energy exploration.
That was a counter to a Turkey-Libya deal dividing the waters between them and Turkey claiming parts of Greece's Continental Shelf, planning to drill of Kastellorizo and other Greek islands near Turkey, as well as near Crete.
With Germany trying to play power broker, France, Cyprus and Italy joined Greece in military and naval exercises in the region as a show of force, with Turkey already drilling off Cyprus where the French energy company Total is licensed to look for oil and gas.
French Defense Minister, Florence Parly, who said she prefers dialogue too, said the military exercises were undertaken to show “respect for international law must be the rule and not the exception.”
Spain and Italy – the Italian energy company ENI is also off Cyprus – want a more conciliatory approach, to which Erdogan has shown nothing but disdain and been emboldened by the EU's timidity to take him on.
EU foreign ministers have twice refused Greece's demand to recommend sanctions while simultaneously urging Turkey to pull back, but without any unified military force.
Erdogan canceled talks in Ankara with Greek officials after the Egypt deal but Maas said that, “It is clear that such talks can only take place and be successful in a constructive environment, and for that, all destructive activities must be ended,” which Erdogan has ruled out, effectively making dialogue moot for now.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said his country was “open to talks without preconditions, but when one side starts imposing preconditions, then there are many things we will put forth, too.”
He warned Greece to “stop being bratty” and drawing red lines that could lead to conflict although Erdogan earlier said he would go along with dialogue but only if Greece made concessions because he won't.
Greece wants to limit any talks to the Continental Shelf dispute – the US backs Greece and Cyprus but also Turkey's claims who owns the seas there isn't clear – and Turkey wants talks to include other issues, such as the rights of the Turkish minority in northern Greece near the mutual border.
The Times said Turkey appears to be pursuing what it calls “Blue Homeland,” an expansionist strategy to claim waters and resources in the East Mediterranean and Aegean controlled by Greece and other countries.
The plan envisions Turkey taking over several Greek islands where hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens live: seizing or invading Greek territory as Erdogan said he covets return of Greek islands ceded in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne he won't recognize.
With potentially lucrative energy revenues under the sea, some countries normally at odds, such as Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, have cooperated on gas projects but ruled out Turkey, further irking Erdogan.
“Their aim was to imprison our country, which has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean, into a coastal strip from which you can only catch fish with a rod,” he complained.
Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy are planning a pipeline called EastMed to carry gas to European consumers, but Turkey’s more recent maritime claims cross its route, and Erdogan has vowed to block it, the paper said.
Erdogan said that Turkey “will take whatever it is entitled to” in the region, vowing that “we will never make concessions on what belongs to us,” daring Greece to try to stop him.
Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian Ambassador to NATO, told the paper that the EU should stop “going through the motions” on the prospect that Turkey could become a member,, which has been going on since 2005 and no progress and Turkey refusing to recognize Cyprus – which is a member – while barring its ships and planes.