Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris in 2018. (Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
Paris (CNSNews.com) – A deepening spat between NATO allies France and Turkey over the eastern Mediterranean will be on the agenda when French President Emmanuel Macron hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks in southern France on Thursday.
France has thrown its support behind Greece in its ongoing dispute with Ankara over Turkish oil and gas exploration in disputed waters. Last week a French frigate and fighter jets carried out joint training exercises with Greek forces in the area, angering Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Earlier Turkey had sent a scientific seismic research ship into the disputed waters, escorted by Turkish naval vessels.
Macron said on Twitter he had decided to strengthen the French military presence temporarily, in co-operation with Greece and other European partners.
“The eastern Mediterranean situation is worrying,” he said. “Turkey’s unilateral decisions concerning oil exploration are provoking tensions that must end, to enable calm dialogue between countries which are neighbors and allies in NATO.”
Erdogan, already at odds with Macron over their support for opposite sides in the Libyan conflict, accused France of behaving “like a kingpin and heightening tensions” in the eastern Mediterranean.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed the French backing, calling Macron “a true friend of Greece and a fervent defender of European values and international law.”
For its part, Germany has called on France, Greece and Turkey to avoid escalation, but Macron will be hoping for more open support from Merkel for two fellow E.U. member states.
(Turkey is a member of NATO but not the E.U., for which it has been a candidate for membership since 1999.)
Turkey and Greece both claim that gas reserves in the Aegean Sea region fall within their territorial waters, in a dispute based on differing interpretations of international maritime law dealing with exclusive economic zones and limits of continental shelves.
The U.S. has been calling for restraint among its quarreling allies. Macron spoke with President Trump on Friday, and both “expressed concern over increased tension between NATO allies Greece and Turkey,” according to the White House.
On Monday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Turkish counterpart while both were visiting the Dominican Republic. The State Department said their discussions included “the urgent need to reduce tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Ariane Bonzon, a Paris-based writer on Turkish affairs, said Macron’s view is that the E.U. “must not leave the field free for Turkish expansionist aims.”
However, neither the E.U. nor NATO have yet expressed clear support for France in the dispute, she said.
Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, told the Sud Est newspaper the NATO is not designed to settle disputes between its members. Each NATO ally has a de facto veto right.
It was therefore up to E.U. countries to engage with Turkey, “a country whose economy remains dependent on Europe and which is still officially a candidate for the E.U.,” he said.
Turkey relationship with the E.U. has long been a prickly one, with deep differences over human rights and other issues.
In a 2016 agreement, Erdogan pledged to prevent migrants, many from Syria and elsewhere in the Mideast region, from passing through Turkish territory into Europe in exchange for three billion euros ($3.3 billion).
But he has shown himself willing to break that commitment in order to put pressure on the E.U., for instance by allowing thousands of migrants to cross Turkey’s land border with Greece earlier this year.