Malta’s foreign minister has urged talks to avert escalation in the eastern Mediterranean after Ankara mounted a new naval expedition to search for gas, while Greece and Cyprus pressed EU allies to impose more sanctions against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Tensions between Turkey and European states over maritime territory and energy resources risked destabilising the wider region, Evarist Bartolo warned in an interview.
“If they are on very bad terms and there’s a lot of hostility, it is going to spill over into the rest of the Mediterranean,” Mr Bartolo told the Financial Times. “It’s in our interests to as much as possible find ways of de-escalating and having dialogue, however difficult it is.”
Mr Bartolo’s comments highlight growing fears that the Mediterranean could become a conflict zone after France deployed naval vessels and fighter aircraft and Athens warned that the risk of an accidental flare-up among the countries involved was rising.
The minister said he had told Mevlut Cavusoglu, his Turkish counterpart, in July that the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was a good example of face-saving resolution to a dangerous stand-off. He added that the EU’s “difficult and complicated relationship” with Turkey went beyond the energy disputes and must take account of Ankara’s crucial role in curbing migration to the bloc.
“If we turn away from each other, I don’t think it will be a good development — even for the European Union,” said Mr Bartolo, who took up his post in the central Mediterranean island state this year.
Malta’s concerns highlight differences of opinion over Turkey within the EU, which has so far imposed only largely symbolic sanctions over Ankara’s energy expeditions in waters off Cyprus.
The bloc’s foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss the eastern Mediterranean situation at an informal meeting in Berlin this week, ahead of talks by bloc leaders at a summit in Brussels in September.
While demands from Greece and Cyprus for a tougher line against Ankara have attracted increasing support from France, many other EU member states are reluctant to undermine the relationship with Turkey further, given the country’s importance for migration policy, counter-terrorism and trade.
Both Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, and Germany, holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, have sought to deepen dialogue with Mr Erdogan’s government.
By contrast, France deployed a helicopter carrier, a frigate and two Rafale fighters in the eastern Mediterranean this month.
Asked if he thought Paris’s move helpful, Mr Bartolo replied: “I think that whatever step we need to take it’s important that it doesn’t lead to a vicious circle. I appreciated a lot what Germany is doing. I think that Germany is a great stabiliser, moderator, talking to different countries, keeping an open channel of communication. I think that is crucial to do that.”
He added that he hoped a big Black Sea gas discovery announced by Turkey last week would make it “more calm and strategic” about the eastern Mediterranean — even as Mr Erdogan vowed that Turkey would accelerate its exploration activities in the area.
The dynamics of the eastern Mediterranean dispute are complicated by overlapping international alliances. Turkey is a member of Nato but not the European Union, while Malta and Cyprus are in the European bloc but not the military alliance. Greece and France are members of both.
Mr Bartolo said speculation that Turkey wanted to use an air base in Malta to help its military support for the UN-backed government in civil war-racked Libya was “rubbish”.
“There has been no such request,” he said. “We are a tiny, neutral country — it’s in our constitution. It’s not in our interests and I think it’s not in the interests of the Mediterranean for Malta to be used against any neighbouring country.”
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara