The tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean should be a straightforward matter for the European Union. A member state, Greece, faces territorial claims from a neighboring nation, Turkey.
Instead of rallying behind Greece, however, several EU countries are taking an ambivalent approach, as they are fearful of the political and economic repercussions of antagonizing Ankara. This poses a fundamental issue for the bloc: What does this club of nations stand for if it is not ready to protect its members?
The hesitation risks causing a justifiable sense of resentment in Athens, only years after the EU’s messy handling of Greece’s sovereign debt crisis. It also risks setting a dangerous precedent for all member states. If Turkey can exploit the divisions within the EU, other countries, such as Russia and China, will be able to as well.
Turkey has long sought to redraw its maritime boundaries with Greece. But its long-standing claims have gathered new force in light of recent gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey has become more aggressive in encroaching on the area. The diplomatic spat now threatens to escalate into all-out war, as the two countries engage in military skirmishes in an increasingly tense area of the world, which includes Libya, Israel and Egypt. Cyprus, another EU member state, is also contending with Turkish demands.
The European Treaties, the EU’s founding documents, talk explicitly about the need to develop “mutual political solidarity among Member States.” Indeed, France has taken a supportive stance toward Greece, but other nations are being more cautious. Germany and Italy are warier of undermining their strong economic ties with Turkey. They also fear President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rowing back the country’s agreements with the EU over immigration, which would cause new migrant inflows at a time of great uncertainty in Europe.
EU leaders will gather in two weeks to discuss the crisis. The detachment of the U.S. from the area makes it even more important that member states reach a united front. They should throw their weight behind Greece and Cyprus, imposing more sanctions on Turkey unless it engages in meaningful de-escalation. The bloc already slapped a travel ban and asset freeze against two Turkish individuals in February.
The EU is facing a number of other foreign policy dilemmas. It must decide whether to freeze its relationship with Russia, after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, as well as how to handle any interference in the growing protests in Belarus. It must choose whether to pursue a more assertive stance vis-à-vis China, following Beijing’s repressive moves in Hong Kong. Above all, it must think about what to do if Donald Trump wins a second term as U.S. president and further destabilizes trade relationships and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Greece presents an opportunity to show that the EU can form a strong and united front in the face of an external threat. If solidarity means anything, now is the time to prove it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg View. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.