Slap in the face to Italy-Turkey ties

President Erdoğan (left) with Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (right) in Feb.

ROME - The current course of Turkey’s foreign policy is causing significant tensions with powerful traditional allies such as the United States or increasingly powerful players in the Middle East, namely Russia, as Ankara continues its military offensive in North-West Syria. As such, the Eastern Mediterranean standoff with Italy might erroneously seem as a minor issue for Turkey’s political establishment. However, the latest events are really significant.

 On Feb. 9, 2018 Ankara’s naval forces prevented a drilling ship, Saipem 1200, belonging to Italy´s oil major ENI, from reaching the area planned for exploration through a license granted by the government of Cyprus.

 Interviewed by telephone by Greek media, Sapiem 1200’s Capitan described how upon arrival to block 3 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the ship was encircled and had its path blocked by Turkish military vessels.

 Cyprus has subsequently denounced the presence of the Turkish Navy in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as a violation of international law. Turkey, however, is the only country not recognising the exclusive sovereignty of Cyprus on those waters and insists on the right of the Turkish-Cypriot community to share the island's energy resources.

 ENI was ultimately forced to leave Cyprus’ waters due to the high costs (300,000 euros every day the drilling ship was kept inactive) and to the increasingly hostile approach adopted by Turkish military vessels who even threatened to sink the ship.

 Turkey’s decision to deploy its naval forces to block the Italian ship off the southern coast of Cyprus marked the start of an unprecedented spat, that has the potential to impact cooperation between Rome and Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean.

 Italy and Turkey are solid allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Among the members of the European Union (EU) Rome, together with Berlin, maintained the warmest relations with Ankara even after the failure of the negotiations that were supposed to pave the way for Turkey´s accession to the EU.

 This, however, did not prevent Ankara’s opposition to ENI’s operations in Cyprus. It is certainly not a coincidence that the main obstacle causing the sinking of the EU accession negotiations was Ankara´s involvement in Cyprus.

 Turkey ensured the establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1974, a separate entity from the state of Cyprus, a EU member. Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus took place, allegedly, to foil Greek attempts to annex the island and to provide a safe area for ethnic Turks living in Cyprus. Since then, safeguarding the interests of Turkish Cypriots and maintaining a military presence in Northern Cyprus has been so important that Ankara has been willing to put it before prospects of a closer and more profitable partnership with the EU.

 It could be argued that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is hostage of his own harsh rhetoric which he needs for internal political support. The focus on foreign policy to divert public opinion’s attention away from internal problems is certainly a well-established political practise in most countries.

 Beyond rhetoric and internal issues, however, Erdoğan has demonstrated his willingness to deliver a foreign policy slap on a Italy, an established EU and NATO member, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, a region potentially rich in oil and gas.

 France’s oil giant, Total, already announced it will send its own team to explore opportunities in Cyprus’ waters.  As such, the Ankara-Rome spat could potentially be the first of many, opposing Turkey and other EU countries, regarding the exploitation of energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

 Antonino Occhiuto is a Junior Analyst at the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC), his research involves Security and EU-GCC relations