NATO allies Turkey and Greece have locked horns over who gets to explore hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean.
● For centuries, Turkey and Greece have shared a chequered history.
● Greece won independence from modern Turkey’s precursor, the Ottoman Empire, in 1830.
● In 1923, the two countries exchanged their Muslim and Christian populations – a migration whose scale has only been surpassed in history by the Partition of India.
● The two nations continue to oppose each other on the decades-old Cyprus conflict, and on two occasions have almost gone to war over exploration rights in the Aegean Sea.
● Both countries are, however, part of the 30-member NATO alliance, and Turkey is officially a candidate for full membership of the European Union, of which Greece is a constituent.
Highlights: The recent Turkey-Greece conflict
The Hagia Sophia row
o The Hagia Sophia was originally a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire before it was turned into a mosque in 1453.
o In the 1930s, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, shut down the mosque and turned it into a museum in an attempt to make the country more secular.
o Many Greeks continue to revere the Hagia Sophia, and view it as a key part of Orthodox Christianity. So, when Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan ordered the structure open to Muslim worship last month, tensions escalated.
The Eastern Mediterranean dispute
o For 40 years, Turkey and Greece have disagreed over rights to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, which covers significant oil and gas deposits.
o In July this year, Turkey announced that the drilling ship Oruc Reis would be exploring a disputed part of the sea for oil and gas. Greece responded by placing its air force, navy and coastguard on high alert.
o French President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for Greece, and said that Turkey should be “sanctioned” for its violations in the Aegean.
o After German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened, Turkey halted the drilling operation, and that it became easy to discuss the issue with Greece.
✔ The highly complicated issue now has the potential to involve Europe, West Asia and North Africa.
✔ It is difficult to demarcate the maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, which is dotted with Turkish and Greek islands.
✔ France, the EU’s most powerful military force, has thrown its weight behind Greece and Cyprus. Now, an alliance is emerging among Greece, Cyprus, Italy and France, which is backed by Egypt, Israel and the UAE.
✔ Turkey stands almost isolated, but remains a key power in the Mediterranean, which requires the EU to tread cautiously. If the EU wants to transport gas from the coast of Israel to Europe via Cyprus and Italy, an open conflict with Turkey cannot help.
It is in everybody’s interest to dial down tensions and find a diplomatic and mutually acceptable solution to the gas contest. Excluding Turkey, which has a long Mediterranean coast, is unwise. Allowing a resurgent Turkey to bully smaller powers in the region would be strategically disastrous. The EU has to strike a balance between these two options.