ATHENS, Greece—Greece’s government says it has finalized plans to extend a wall along its northeast border with Turkey, over concerns that migrants may try to stage mass crossings into the European Union country. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Monday that 26 kilometers (16 miles) of wall would be added to an existing 10-kilometer (6 mile) section in a 63-million-euro ($74 million) project due to be completed by the end of April. Migrants wait in the buffer zone near the Pazarkule crossing gate in Edirne at the Turkey-Greece border on March 5, 2020. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images) A standoff occurred at the border earlier this year after Turkey said it would no longer prevent migrants trying to reach the EU, and tens of thousands tried to cross into Greece. The two countries are also at odds over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean in a dispute that has triggered a dangerous military buildup in the region and fears of conflict. Four Greek construction companies have been selected to build the new wall and upgrade the existing section of fencing, running along or close to the Evros River, which forms much of the border between the two countries. Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos, right, and Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Konstantinos Floros, attend a presentation of the proposed construction of a new part of a fence which will be built at the border with Turkey, in Alexandroupolis, northern Greece, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister’s Office via AP) The wall will be made using galvanized square steel tubes and concrete foundations, according to Greece’s public order ministry. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited the border region on Saturday after a test installation of a section of the new wall. The number of migrants and refugees traveling from Turkey to Greece fell sharply this year during the pandemic and after the border standoff prompted tougher border policing. Turkey has accused Greece of illegally pushing back migrants reaching its islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, a charge that Athens denies. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, at nearly 4 million people, mostly from Syria, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
September 22, 2020 should go down as a landmark date not only for the energy sector in the Eastern Mediterranean but also for the fragile political landscape of the whole region. Six countries – Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, and Jordan, plus the Palestinian Authority – have signed a historical agreement which opens the road for tight cooperation in the gas sector. At the same time, the agreement has significant geopolitical implications for the ever-changing balances in the wider region. From a Quasi-Formal Forum to a Full-Blown International Organization The first efforts around the establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum go way back. In autumn 2018 the leaders of Cyprus, Egypt and Greece met in the Greek island of Crete and held talks about the consolidation of cooperation among gas-producing countries. This meeting predominantly aimed to achieve efficient coordination among Mediterranean states which are involved in the process of gas production and distribution, in order to gradually maximize the potential gains for all the sides involved. This promising idea has received a more official format a couple of months later, when in January 2019, the “Natural Gas Forum in the Eastern Mediterranean” took place in Cairo with the participation of all the 6+1 parties that signed the charter of the Organization on September 22, 2020. Since January 2019 the Forum has been gradually moving to the establishment of a concrete international body, and the strategic initiative has been officially completed and reached its final form through the virtual ceremony which took place yesterday. High-Ranking Virtual Conference The following Ministers of Energy-related sectors participated in the virtual conference: Natassa Pilidou (Cyprus), Tarek al-Mala (Egypt), Kostis Hatziadakis (Greece), Yuval Steinitz (Israel), Hala Zawati (Jordan), alongside the Italian Undersecretary of the Ministry of Economic Development (MISE) Alessandra Todde and the Palestinian Ambassador in Egypt, Diab al-Louh. According to the joint statements issued by the participants shortly after the completion of the works, the organization will function as a factor of peace and stability in the region, bringing closer the gas producers, the suppliers and the consumers. The ultimate goal of this joint initiative is to establish a robust and viable territorial gas market in the Eastern Mediterranean, which will crucially benefit the people of the region in the long-term. It should be noted that France has expressed its interest in becoming a member of the organization, while the EU and the US will probably engage with the initiative under an observer status. Gaza Field and Status of Israeli-Palestinian Relations The Gaza Marine field was discovered in the late 1990s approximately 35 km offshore Gaza Strip. In 2000 the UK British Gas company bought the rights of the field for research and exploration and in 2016 the field came under the possession of Royal Dutch Shell, when the latest acquired the BG Group. The project has been into a stalemate for almost 2 decades due to the unique political and security challenges in the area and disagreement over the exploitation rights of the field between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In 2018 the Gaza Marine gas field has been bought by the Palestine Investment Fund, a sovereign fund which invests in strategic projects, with ultimate purpose to strengthen the struggling Palestinian economy. Since 2003 the public shareholding fund is functioning under the guidance of the Palestinian Authority, seeking to participate in initiatives across vital industry sectors that could serve the interests of the Palestinian people. The acquisition of the Gaza Marine gas field by the PIF and the participation of the Palestinian Authority in the official establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum signify an optimistic outlook regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations. It is not only the participation of the PA in an international body where cooperation with Israel is de facto achieved through the mutual economic benefits that both parties would seek via the exploitation of the gas reserves. Such a potential major project in the Gaza Strip which could bring prosperity in the area and could potentially limit the influence of the radical Hamas organization in the region or possibly force Hamas to adopt a more moderate stance towards Israel and the PA, in order to establish a viable work environment for the people living in Gaza. Turkey’s Exclusion and Possible Counter-reaction The establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum comes at a critical moment for the stability in the region. Turkey has been unilaterally conducting seismic research and drilling in the declared Cypriot fields over the past year without any authorization from the Cypriot administration. Since last July, Ankara has also been raising tension over disputes with Greece, regarding the maritime zones of the Greek islands. The very establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum organization sends a political message to Turkey. The exclusion of Ankara from the EastMed Gas group highlights the fact that the unilateral and aggressive decision-making in the region will not be welcomed by any of the neighboring countries. We know that President Recep Erdogan hates being isolated, and he has never been actually isolated in the past, regardless of what some commentators are persistently claiming. However, this latest move leaves officially Turkey out of a club, where Ankara could be playing an major role under different circumstances. In this respect, Turkey has been lately trying to find common ground with Egypt. Either through seeking rapprochement in the Libyan conflict or through proposals for declaring their respective exclusive economic zones with much more luring terms than Cairo has done with Nicosia or Athens. Apparently the last plan is fundamentally based upon the Turkish “Blue Homeland Doctrine” according to which the maritime rights of Greece and Cyprus are severely degraded. Nevertheless it is rather improbable to see a cooperation between Cairo and Ankara any time soon, or at least under the current political status quo. Turkey’s harsh criticism against the al-Sisi administration alongside the fierce support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt foreclose any impetus for a political reconciliation between the two counties. Cause for Concern This assumption leads us to a concerning conclusion. In the event that Turkey ends up being at odds with the seven of the EastMed Gas Forum then we can be expecting unconventional reactions from Ankara. After all, the recent signing of the charter should not be seen as only an energy deal but also as a political agreement. And in this special occasion, the ideal method for Turkey to counter-react would be to utilize the relations with Hamas. This includes ties that have been built over the years through the essential assistance from Turkey in support of the Palestinian cause. If such a scenario is to materialize, then we should expect Ankara to decisively attempt destroying any potential of cooperation in the Gaza Strip, as we have described earlier. And a Turkish boost to Hamas in order political objectives to be achieved through local tensions could bring catastrophic results to the wider theater of the Eastern Mediterranean, threatening the now visible regional peace and stability that’s been sought after for such a long time.
The EU Med Group, widely known as MED7, met in Ajaccio, Corsica on Saturday, September 10. The alliance consists of seven Mediterranean countries which are member states of the European Union, namely Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain. The most critical issues the top of the meeting’s agenda were the current developments in the Mediterranean, predominantly the Migrant Crisis and unilateral Turkish actions against Greece and Cyprus. France, Greece and Cyprus; a Strong Alliance Directly Condemning Turkey’s Actions French President Emmanuel Macron, the official host of the meeting has been the one to open the joint press conference of the seven country leaders. Macron initially talked about the worrying issue of the uncontrolled migrant flows from Libya stating that the problem should be immediately dealt with. The French President grabbed the opportunity and attacked Turkey, stressing that Ankara should adhere to the 2016 Turkey-EU deal over the refugee crisis and stop acting unilaterally. He also emphasized the important need for absolute respect towards the arms embargo on Libya, commenting that there have been some discrepancies from Europe so far, indirectly criticizing the stance of Germany. Regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Macron used clear and decisive language, delivering an unambiguous message of solidarity to Greece and Cyprus and talking about illegal drilling and unilateral provocations from the Turkish side. He stated that Europe is seeking a bona fide dialogue, but the Turkish reactions so far, are making this initiative rather difficult. Under any circumstances, Paragraph 6* of the MED7 Joint Declaration would be strictly applied, and this is something Macron has emphasized, even though the context of Paragraph 6 with regards to the EU response towards Turkey still remains somehow generic. The French President concluded that a coordinated European effort is deemed necessary on other critical issues within the Mediterranean territory, like Lebanon and Syria. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis followed Emmanuel Macron. Mitsotakis opened his speech with the recent events in the Moria camp in the Greek island of Lesbos. The Greek PM thanked the other European countries for their essential support on this developing crisis and underlined that the immigration challenges, are correctly treated as a common European problem. Mitsotakis also condemned the constant violation of Greek-Cypriot rights from Turkey and referred to the illegal occupation of the northern part of Cyprus since 1974. He called Ankara to abstain from further provocative and unilateral actions in the Mediterranean, and he recalled that President Macron has characterized the region as Mare Nostrum, Our Sea, implicating that the European South should be the key player in this region of vital importance. The Greek PM said that European support for Greece and Cyprus should not be just an act of solidarity but a self-conscious action to protect the strategic interests of the European Union. An Appeal to Turkey There has been another appeal to Turkey to negotiate in good will, otherwise Greece would take the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The Greek PM closed his speech announcing that he is looking forward to the next MED7 meeting in Greece and specifically on the island of Crete, Mitsotakis’ place of origin. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades mentioned that the weight of the immigration crisis is disproportionate for Cyprus, which is a front-line country. He harshly criticized Turkey for using the asylum seekers, as a tool of geopolitical pressure, and said that a new EU asylum deal to control the migrant flows is deemed necessary. Anastasiades talked about reckless Turkish actions that pose a risk for the wider area, and complained about Ankara’s continuous war rhetoric. He also called the other countries to assist in ending the Turkish illegal exploration and drilling operations in Greek and Cypriot maritime zones. The violation of the international law and of the sovereign rights of two EU member states are not only threatening the reliability of the European Union but also the integrity and security of the continent as a whole. Anastasiades aligned with the comments of the Greek PM, and reaffirmed that if the dialogue with Ankara is not fruitful, the Hague should definitely be an option, but also harsh sanctions against Turkey should always be on the table. Italy and Malta; Solidarity and Dialogue Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, praised the importance of the southern countries of Europe in dealing with the EU challenges. Talking about the immigration challenges, he confirmed that the South should stop simply dealing with the results and start acting proactively. Coordination with third countries -countries of origin and transit countries- is deemed necessary to reduce the flows in European territory, while the elimination of the migrant smugglers should always be on the top of the agenda. Regarding the Greek-Turkish dispute, Conte expressed his absolute solidarity towards Greece and Cyprus, condemning unilateral actions by Turkey, and mentioning that he fully trusts the German Presidency of the EU Council and the actions of the European Council, which could lead to swift deescalation. The Prime Minister of Malta Robert Abela clarified that cooperation between neighboring and friendly countries is of critical importance, expressing his full solidarity to Greece. Even though the neutral status of Malta is clearly defined in the country’s constitution, Abela stressed that international law and sovereign rights must not be challenged under any circumstances. The Maltese Prime Minister emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean is important and said he is really optimistic for the results that the MED7 coordination could bring. Finally he referred to the refugee crisis, which is directly affecting his country, stating that the emergency could only be managed through the establishment of peace in Libya, and the prompt reconstruction of a viable economy for the country. Spain and Portugal; Deescalation the Only Way Ahead The Prime Minister of Portugal António Costa initially discussed the COVID-19 European and global geopolitical challenges. He expressed his solidarity to Cyprus and Greece and made a special reference to the important role of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Joseph Borel, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. Costa repeatedly stated that a solution should be sought through negotiations and multilateral dialogue. The Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, focused on the immigration crisis, expressing his solidarity for the Moria incident and calling for responsible actions from the EU, adequate border control, and a dual approach that could ensure the security and well-being of the European people, always with respect on the human rights and the humanitarian values. In the Eastern Mediterranean front, Sánchez highlighted that dialogue should be the only way forward and de-escalation has to be the top priority for Europe, through a process dictated by the European interests, and led by the European institutions. Conclusions and the Turkish Reaction After examining the statements of the seven leaders, we understand that the MED7 could easily agree on a mutual policy towards the common problem of the migrant flows, but in the case of the Easter Mediterranean and the Greek, Cypriot and Turkish dispute the things are different. On the one hand Cyprus, France and Greece adopt a straightforward stance, seeming ready to confront the Turkish provocations, while the remaining four leaders have chosen a much more moderate attitude. In the meantime Turkish President Recep Erdogan has found a unique way to protest again the MED7 conclusions. Shortly after the end of the Joint Press Conference, he posted an old video from the time he was Mayor of Istanbul, through his personal Twitter account. In the video the Turkish President is saying that “a wolf-pack is about to attack us, but they cannot eat us; we are too great for them” referring to his Kemalist opponents back in the day. Adapting the statements to the current circumstances, Erdogan is indicating President Macron and the rest of the European leaders that took part in the summit. *Paragraph 6 of the MED7 Joint Declaration We reiterate our full support and solidarity with Cyprus and Greece in the face of the repeated infringements on their sovereignty and sovereign rights, as well as confrontational actions by Turkey. We call upon all the countries in the region to abide by international law, in particular international law of the sea, and encourage all parties to resolve their disputes through dialogue and negotiation. In this respect, we welcome the mediation efforts of the HR/VP and Germany in order to achieve a resumption of the dialogue between Greece and Turkey on the maritime zone issue. In addition, we welcome the invitation by the Government of Cyprus to negotiate with Turkey, noting that delimitation of exclusive economic zones and continental shelf should be addressed through dialogue and negotiation in good faith, in full respect of international law and in accordance with the principle of good neighbourly relations. In line with recent European Council and EU Council conclusions, we regret that Turkey has not responded to the repeated calls by the European Union to end its unilateral and illegal activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. We reaffirm our determination to use all adequate means at the disposal of the European Union in response to these confrontational actions. In line with the latest Informal Meeting of EU Foreign Ministers (Gymnich), we agree to speed up work on the additional listings based on the proposals tabled so far, with a view to its rapid adoption. We maintain that in absence of progress in engaging Turkey into a dialogue and unless it ends its unilateral activities, the EU is ready to develop a list of further restrictive measures that could be discussed at the European Council on 24-25 September 2020.