As tensions between Greece and Turkey were heating up last summer, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Arancha González Laya visited both countries’ capitals on July 27 and 28 and called for a détente between the Greeks and Turks.
Gónzalez Laya appealed to shared political interests, spheres, and institutions, such as NATO, in an effort to de-escalate tensions that resulted from the presence of Turkish exploratory vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which violated Greek and Cypriot internationally recognized waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
Much of Spain’s leverage in this diplomatic endeavor has relied partly on Spain’s geographical position as a Mediterranean coastal state, its historically low-key role, and its shared private and strategic interests in the region (mainly in hydrocarbons extraction and banking sectors), alongside Madrid’s growing partnership with Ankara.
Spain has used common aims and institutions to further leverage Turkey’s policies in the East Mediterranean. It has mainly relied on Turkey’s NATO membership for bridge-building, while framing this approach under the EU’s political and economic policies and interests.
Behind the Scenes: Spain’s Mediator Role
Last summer Turkey and Greece appeared close to an open armed conflict over control of the Aegean Sea’s coastal waters. Turkey’s underwater exploratory vessels for natural resources threatened Greece and Cyprus’ national waters’ sovereignty, triggering a collision between Greek and Turkish military vessels this past August.
These clashes followed political and economic developments that had already intensified Athens and Ankara’s friction, such as the maritime boundary agreement between Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord, the East Med Pipeline agreement between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, and the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, among other challenging events.
Top EU leaders called on Ankara to stop its unilateral exploration activities, with Brussels giving its explicit support to Athens and Nicosia. With Washington’s support, Germany took the lead in late June to calm the waters in the Aegean Sea and encourage further dialogue between Greece and Turkey. At the same time, Germany’s position counterbalanced open hostilities between France and Turkey.
As the EU tried not to take further antagonistic measures against Turkey, Spain entered the scene within EU and NATO institutional frameworks. While in Ankara, Spain’s Foreign Minister stated, “Turkey is a NATO ally, not only a friend. In NATO you don’t have only friends, you have allies.” These words became one of the few public statements of support for Turkey, which came from Western political spheres, as the Spanish minister extended a helping hand to Ankara to address the conflict with Athens and establish a Greek-Turkish dialogue.
The leverage exerted by Spain on the Turkish government appears to have contributed to a de-escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and a greater push for Turkey’s EU membership. According to a report published by the Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano: “All [past] Prime Ministers of Spain […] have supported Turkey’s integration in the Union.”
“Both Socialists and Conservatives in Spain share common ground in supporting Turkey’s EU membership. Since it has never been a major issue in public debate, it has never been a salient item during national elections,” the report adds. “Also, there is no Turkish community or minority lobby to please or historical bilateral issues to resolve. This gives Spain a privileged position amongst the big member states of the EU.”
Similarly, Harry Tzimitras, Director of the PRIO Cyprus Peace Institute, told Inside Arabia that “Spain is a big, important EU country, but with no strong baggage that jeopardizes its perceived neutral position in the Eastern Mediterranean”—it has a “clean slate.”
“Spain is a big, important EU country, but with no strong baggage that jeopardizes its perceived neutral position in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
The increased economic interdependency between Spain and Turkey could explain Spain’s more active role in the Athens-Ankara spat. As pointed out by Tzimitras, “Spain has great exposure to Turkey’s economy given that its second bank, BBVA, owns a big part of Turkey’s Garanti Bank, alongside more general concerns regarding the volume of Turkey’s exports to the EU.”
In light of their expanding ties, Spain has increased its profile in the region, mainly in the scenarios where Turkey is also present. Accordingly, Minister González Laya visited both warring sides in Libya in early September, taking part in the UN-led ceasefire negotiations.
During that same month, González Laya visited Cyprus where she met with President Nikos Anastasiadis and the Cypriot Foreign Affairs Minister. The official visit to Nicosia was framed under the negotiations among EU members regarding the sanctions against Belarus, where Nicosia demanded penalties against Turkey be included in the package against Minsk. Though, ultimately, sanctions against Turkey were not considered.
While EU and Spanish diplomatic efforts during this past summer appear to have had positive effects in the Eastern Mediterranean region, it is unclear how long this tense calm can last. During the last few months, Ankara yet again sent exploratory vessels to Greek and Cypriot waters. Furthermore, Turkey raised the stakes in the Eastern Mediterranean when in mid-November 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited the ghost city of Varosha in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; a visit deemed as “an unprecedented provocation” by Athens and Nicosia, triggering retaliatory words from EU officials.
Still, Spanish diplomacy is likely to follow this past summer’s strategy. The Spanish government published in November a draft of its foreign policy vision for the 2020-23 period. The document outlined a push for multilateralism and realpolitik approaches. Regarding Turkey, the plan states it is “a strategic partner” and that it is necessary to maintain a European approach to anchor Turkey to the West and qualifies the Eastern Mediterranean as a priority region for Spain.
Spain’s policies vis-à-vis Turkey’s interests and the supportive remarks by the Spanish President Pedro Sánchez, and by the Minister González Laya, have also been reciprocated by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister. Çavuşoğlu wrote an article in January in La Razón (a Spanish daily) praising Madrid’s constructive efforts in supporting Turkey’s EU candidacy, and emphasizing their political and economic alliance.
In order to keep Turkey at bay, the EU appears to be exploring new mechanisms, including the update of a key element in the Turkey-EU relations, the Customs Union (CU) agreement. In the coming months “it is expected that there will be serious attempts to modernize the CU” where “Spain will have an important role to play in those discussions under the EU umbrella,” Tzimitras told Inside Arabia.
Spain has capitalized on its influence in Turkey to improve and increase economic and trade ties between Turkey and the EU.
Spain has capitalized on its influence in Turkey to improve and increase economic and trade ties between Turkey and the EU, currently framed under the 1995 CU agreement.
Spain has been one of the major EU economies to benefit from the CU, but its diplomatic elite and Spanish companies with interests in Turkey are now pushing for its modernization, which would include updated economic parameters since it is 15 years old. There is also speculation that an alternative to the CU modernization would be the creation of a new Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, which would provide a “full liberalization of trade in industrial goods and preferential access in non-goods areas.”
Indeed, Spain has not been the only actor pushing for a modernization of the CU, EU member countries such as Italy and major financial institutions in Europe, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), have also argued that an updated trade and economic framework with Turkey is needed.
Moreover, the EU appears to be taking an approach that would secure trade and economic relations with Turkey, while adhering to EU neighboring states’ policy interests. For example, the press release that followed the October 2020 EU Council (EUCO) meeting, did not mention Turkey’s human rights violations, instead it referred exclusively to its geopolitical conflict with Greece and Cyprus. For the first time, the EU held a compromise agenda with Turkey by overlooking its domestic issues and not referring to the Copenhagen Criteria, which outlines eligibility for EU membership.
Harry Tzimtras highlights that “Turkey is too big to fail, and a failed Turkish economy could lead to more challenging political developments that could ultimately negatively affect the entire EU community.”
Considering these factors, the conclusions of the EUCO meetings on December 10 and 11, 2020 have yet again revealed the reservations EU leadership has regarding harsher and more repressive policies against Turkey. Thus, Spain and key EU partners are likely to keep pushing for a more agreeable agenda regarding relations with Ankara, by which the modernization of the CU will play a central role, and where political confrontation with Turkey will be minimized.
Eastern Mediterranean: A Microcosm of Regional and Global Battles