The European Union would likely be a productive mediator and not an antagonist as it is now. But it's not too late for the bloc to play a positive role.

After German mediation efforts were torpedoed by Greece signing a maritime delimitation deal with Egypt a day before the planned joint Turkish-Greek declaration, Turkey decided to continue its drilling activities within its continental shelf.

Greece, pushed by France, continues to escalate the rhetoric and threatens Turkey with European sanctions if Turkey does not stop its activities. The escalation between the neighbours has led to minor incidents in the sea and the airspace over the eastern Mediterranean.

What currently is being described as a major escalation, can be resolved. To find a path forward, one can speculate over the hypothetical: how might the disagreement have evolved if Turkey was a member of the European Union?

In the early years of the AK Party government, Ankara's relationship with the EU was flourishing, and the acceleration process came to a point where the EU membership seemed well within reach for Turkey. 

However, the leadership in Europe proved unwilling to accept Turkey as a member state. Since then, both sides drifted apart but have tried to preserve the relationship as much as possible. If Turkey had become a member, today's escalation in the eastern Mediterranean would seem less intractable.

In such a scenario, the EU would be within an equal distance from both of its member states, the possible oil and gas resources would be seen as a common interest to minimise Turkey's and southern Europe's dependence on Russian gas. The disagreement over maritime boundaries would be discussed in a fair manner, and most likely EU member states would argue based on international law and equity. 

Most likely, the Greek claims for the island of Meis (Kastellorizo) would not find any genuine support in the EU. The issue could quite easily be solved through an informal meeting of European leaders. 

French, Italian, Turkish and energy companies of other nations would compete for lucrative opportunities in the eastern Mediterranean, and by rapidly solving the crisis and joining hands, the EU would reduce its dependency on foreign energy imports. With gas and oil discoveries and the growing trend of moving to renewable energy, the EU's energy policy would be more independent than ever before.

Even though this parallel world sounds idyllic, the realities right now are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Out of solidarity with Greece, the EU member states are putting their weight behind Athens' maximalist approach.

France, which itself rejected the same claims that Greece is making today, in its own dispute with the United Kingdom over the Channel Islands, is now Athens' strongest advocate. The animosity from Paris towards Ankara due to disagreements in Syria and Libya, and the idea of solidarity within the EU, is playing a destructive role.

France has become more visible, but the entirety of the European Union now backs the irrational Greek claims and is condemning Turkish drilling activities. This is despite the fact that current drilling activities are taking place in an area where Greek claims are the weakest.

At the moment, the EU has threatened Turkey with sanctions to be declared on the next official summit between the EU member states. European Council President Charles Michel stated that the EU will not only use sticks but also carrots to convince Turkey.

Although this approach by the EU is better than the 'only stick' approach by the US, it likely won't succeed. Contrary to the past, Turkey now also has sticks and carrots to use against the EU in general, and specific member states within the EU in particular. 

Additionally, there seems to be no stick long enough, and no carrot big enough, to prevent Ankara from gaining energy independence – a dream for Turks since the foundation of the Turkish Republic.

Turkey's threat perception in on high alert due to illegal Greek activities in the Aegean Sea, and the EU is ignoring that factor. In spite of several international treaties, the Greeks have militarised several islands and declared its intention to expand the territorial waters of its islands from 6 nautical miles to 12 miles.

Due to the high density of Greek islands, increasing the territorial waters regime in the Aegean Sea would cut off Turkey and its link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. This would be a massive blow to the economy of the region.

Despite the current escalation, it is still not too late to find a comprehensive solution, but for this, the EU has to change its attitude and act as a mediator and not a provocateur.

Imagining how different the EU would have reacted if Turkey had become an EU member state. Right now, the EU needs to build trust with Turkey and prove that it is willing to facilitate negotiations on an equal footing. For that purpose, the EU can organise an unofficial EU and Turkey meeting just as if Turkey was a member of the EU. 

Genuine incorporation of Turkish interests on an equal basis into an informal discussion between EU states will help to solve the crisis without further escalation.

This major meeting can function as the framework for further Turkish-Greek negotiations to resolve the conflict and settle the disagreement. For this option to have any chance, more genuine actors such as Germany, Spain and Bulgaria could play a more active role instead of actors such as France and Austria who are partly motivated by domestic politics.

A joint unofficial meeting between the leaders or foreign ministers of the European Union and Turkey could change the entire atmosphere from one of antagonism and escalation to one geared towards resolution.

In the second step, depending on the terms of the agreement in the summit, an international court, direct negotiations, or mediation by the Swiss as a non-EU state could be a way forward to a win-win solution.

At the end of the day, the exploration of gas and oil in the Mediterranean would benefit both the EU and Turkey while undercutting Russia, Iran, and the Gulf states.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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