German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas visited Greece and Turkey on August 25 in an attempt to ease the growing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Maas’ visit came at a moment of constant frictions between the neighboring countries, as consecutive NAVTEX warnings (navigational warnings) issued by both sides are overlapping various mutual areas of the Aegean Sea.
‘NAVTEX Diplomacy’ and Turkish claims
A long-term dispute between Greece and Turkey, has been intensifying since late July, when Ankara issued a NAVTEX covering parts of the Greek continental shelf for seismic research activities. After Germany’s intervention this activity has been cancelled, however shortly after the Greek-Egyptian agreement in early August that established the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) maritime boundaries between the two countries, Turkey issued a new NAVTEX, reserving the right to explore the aforementioned area from Aug. 10 to 23.
This move has triggered unparalleled tensions between Greece and Turkey, and incidents that could suddenly lead to significant escalation and possibly a full-scale confrontation have taken place ever since. As the time-frame of the initial NAVTEX has been approaching its end, Turkey came back with another navigational warning, issued by the Antalya NAVTEX Station, extending the area bounded for seismic research by the Turkish vessel Oruc Reis until Aug 27.
In response the Greek side issued another NAVTEX warning out of Irakleio station warning of a joint Navy and Air Force exercise due to take place between August 24 to 27, in parts of the area that Turkey has already bounded for seismic research. The Antalya Station replied with a new NAVTEX declaring that the Greek navigational warning is null and void, since it was issued by an unauthorized station and the Turkish seismic research would proceed as planned. Apparently this “NAVTEX diplomacy” is being used by each side, as a way to establish a context of the respective sovereign rights in the area. Turkey is seeking to create a de facto situation of grey zones in the Aegean Sea, and is seeming to steadily moving towards this goal.
Heiko Maas in Athens and High Greek Expectations
Heiko Maas held talks with the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Greek Prime Minister respectively during his time in Athens. The meeting between the German Foreign Minister and the Greek top officials took place in a spirit of cooperation and mutual trust.
Nikolaos Dendias, Maas’ Greek counterpart, highlighted that Turkey doesn’t have any sincere intention to negotiate and work alongside Greece to ensure the stability of the region; to the contrary Ankara is always seeking to provoke in order to push further claims and threaten Greek sovereignty. Dendias emphasized that EU under the German Presidency will certainly be a guarantor of the European rights, suggesting that the Turkish unilateral actions should be concerning not only Greece, but the European Union as a whole.
Once again there has been a Greek call for sanctions against Turkey, seeking a proactive approach, similar to the one which was adopted against Belarus; our opinion is that EU, spearheaded by Germany, has no real intention of implementing any sanctions on Turkey at all.
The Greek Foreign Minister also made clear that Greece is willing by all means to protect its sovereign rights against further Turkish provocations; however the recent events following the Oruc Reis’ activity in the sensitive area of the Eastern Mediterranean, has proved that Athens is hesitating to overtake decisive actions even when Ankara puts the Greek sovereignty in question.
An overall assessment of the comments made by the Greek side, indicates that Athens is heavily relying on a coordinated European reaction against Turkey, which is objectively a rather unlikely scenario.
Maas in Ankara and the Inflammatory Response from Cavusoglu
Following his brief visit to Athens, Maas moved to Ankara to hold further talks with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu. During a mutual press conference, shortly after the meeting, Cavusoglu has adopted a much more aggressive approach compared to his Greek counterpart.
After initially thanking Germany for Berlin’s key role in the deescalation process regarding the Greek-Turkish dispute, he mentioned that Athens has been quite arrogant lately, “spoiled” by the long-term EU support, and clarified that no negotiations between the two neighboring countries would proceed, if Greece was to set any preconditions.
He also openly disputed the EEZ rights of the Greek islands and “advised” the Greek government to stop acting recklessly, warning that there will be no further toleration and Ankara will do whatever it takes to protect the Turkish rights and territorial integrity.
Berlin Unlikely to Change its Mild Approach to Turkey
Maas commented during and after his consecutive visits, that at this moment, deescalation is deemed absolutely necessary and constitutes a top priority. There should be a coordinated effort for dialogue between the two opposing parties, and Germany will rigorously assist towards achieving this goal.
It is interesting that Berlin chose to adopt an approach of equal distances, even though Greece is an EU member and the claims of the Greek side are in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. On the other hand Turkey is reluctant to adhere to the Greek positions, or even negotiate in a context of mutual understanding. Ankara is following a unilateral policy characterized by hostility against the other side; yet Germany turns a blind eye on the Turkish aggressiveness.
The German stance can clearly understood if we look into the strong political and economic ties between Berlin and Ankara. The massive Turkish population in Germany, a significant portion of which is looking favorably at President Erdogan, consists a considerable political capital. Also with Germany establishing its position as a top importer country for Turkey over the last decade and considering the intense financial relations between the two countries, we easily comprehend that the potential implementation of economic sanctions on Ankara would indirectly hurt even Berlin itself.
In this context, it is highly unlikely to see any strict measures against Turkey approved by Germany in the near or long-term. This claim is further supported when we briefly look into another recent visit of Maas, to Libya. Maas reportedly visited the war-torn country to support the ongoing peace negotiations, and his visit coincided with a tripartite agreement between Turkey, Qatar, and the Government of National Accord for military cooperation. Even though this deal will actually lead to further deterioration of the current situation and trigger additional tensions, Maas abstained from commenting, once again ignoring deliberately a Turkish wrongdoing and showing the continuing trend heading forward.