Geopolitics of Eastern Mediterranean – Past and Present

The Eastern Mediterranean and its geopolitical conflicts

A specific European Union foreign and security policy — and perhaps also a NATO strategy — is necessary to deal with the strategic problems of that are arising from the new Eastern Question. 

1. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East are a permanent geopolitical puzzle for the European Union with its endless conflicts. It is not by chance that this turbulence is happening. What we are watching today has deep historical roots, frequently misunderstood or badly known in the West. Probably, what we are seeing today is a re-emergence, albeit under other forms, of what was called the Eastern Question in the European diplomatic history of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It was a long historical period full of bloody conflicts whose conventional milestones are the treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire of 1774, after the latter’s defeat — Treaty of Küçük-Kaynarca, in present-day Bulgaria; and the Treaty of Lausanne in Switzerland, that formalized the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the emergence of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923. Indeed, as already said, today we are seeing the reopening issue, albeit in other ways. The deepest problem is that Europeans — more exactly Western Europeans — do not have an adequate mental and strategic framework to grasp this complex geopolitical puzzle. They are socialized in a narrative that takes the past and present of Western Europe and the Euro-Atlantic World as suitable for understanding the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. However, this is a useless reading guide of the geopolitical reality in this part of the World.

2. There is a quick empirical test that can easily be done and corroborates the above stated. The areas of greatest geopolitical turbulence in the South / Southeast proximity of the European Union, or even already within — the case of the Balkans including Greece and Cyprus there, but also Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel / Palestine and Libya —, they all have a common historical-political contact point: they are usually territories of the old Ottoman Empire where there are significant consequences of that past. For many, it may seem too distant to have a major impact on the region’s current geopolitics. However, it is not so. Due to the double effect of its extension in time until the beginning of the 20th century, and of the countless sequels it left, it is closer historically — and much more present — than one might think. Fundamentally, three recent circumstances have given it renewed political relevance: Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government trying to reconstruct a sphere of influence in the empire’s lost territories; the migrants/refugees crisis, generated mainly by the war in Syria; and discoveries of important natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

3. The conflict over natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean deserves particular attention for its potential consequences inside and outside the region. In the last decade, important reserves of natural gas were discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean, located in the offshore area of Israel / Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Turkey. The main area under commercial exploitation is located in the sea, between Israel and Cyprus. Thus, this energy resource has an economic and geopolitical impact on the region. It has already brought an important strategic realignment of convenience, between Cyprus, Greece and Israel, to which Egypt still joins. In the opposite field is Turkey, involved in a territorial dispute with Cyprus, militarily occupied by Turkey in the northern of the island, since 1974. Now, Turkey complains that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — a creation of Turkey without international recognition —, has also an exclusive zone of economic exploitation. In this dispute, Russia has some converging interest with Turkey. Russia intends, as much as possible, to continue with its monopoly of supply to Eastern and Central Europe. So, is not being interested in new suppliers, nor in gas pipelines in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean that break one of its biggest sources of revenue. This dimension of the new Question of the Orient, that did not exist in the past, gave rise to crossed political lines that extend inside the European Union. Three Member-States — Greece, Cyprus and also Italy —, are partners in the exploitation of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and have the political support of another one (France); and a candidate State — Turkey — wants to boycott it as much as possible, using also military pressure from its navy on European companies prospecting natural gas or already extracting it in that area.

4. In this context, a specific European Union foreign and security policy — and perhaps also a NATO strategy — is necessary to deal with the strategic problems of that are arising from the ‘new Eastern Question’. However, a coherent policy and strategy imply, from the outset, to overcome the aforementioned obstacle of the usual mental frames. A clear and comprehensive understanding of the specificity of Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean is needed, taking into account the past and the present political peculiarities of these European and Mediterranean regions. It needs to combine geopolitical and strategic thinking with historical and cultural knowledge and also with humanitarian sensitivity. Partly due to this fragile historical and geopolitical knowledge in the European Union, for too long were created inconsistent expectations regarding a State heir of a powerful empire — Turkey. With its very strong historical, cultural and political identity — and surrounding conflicts on its borders —, Turkey cannot simply be absorbed by European Union, i.e. Europeanized along the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ for accession, like any other ‘normal’ country with a Western and Euro-Atlantic heritage (mostly, small or medium countries). The resurgence of this past, albeit in other forms, opened a new geopolitical front that the European Union cannot evade and for which needs urgently a coherent strategic approach.

© José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes, artigo originalmente publicado no jornal Eco News 16/09/2020

© Mapa: Realpolitik / José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes