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Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean seem to have caught many by surprise, at least those who have not paid attention to the rising tensions over energy exploration in the region, emerging alliances with different agendas and the limits of unsustainable comfort Europe enjoyed by leaving the Cyprus issue as it is.
If you were lucky enough to swim through the cacophony of op-eds and social media bravado in multiple languages – which lead us to no solution but to take a clear side in condemnation of the other in often out-of-context reductions of complex issues – you might have wondered what all of these mean for the UK, and why the government chose to remain cautious. This approach stood in contrast to the French, as they sought to assert preferences rather visibly, not just over Greece–Turkey–Cyprus issues, but also Libya and now Lebanon.
The short answer to that is clear: the UK’s interests in the region are a complex entanglement of portfolios that require engagement and good relations with all sides of the current escalation. As a country that has territories and bases in Cyprus, and has devoted substantial effort to enable unification of the island and de-escalation of potential crises, it is fully aware of how the current alignment of diverse interests and issues has made the region vulnerable to out-of-control deterioration.
Diplomatic caution, however, should not hinder reflections on a long-term strategic vision for what the UK can and cannot – and should and should not – seek to achieve when so many regional actors are aligning their particular interests to pursue shared agendas. This is particularly the case as we are going through the Integrated Review process, which will impact UK defence and security capabilities and posture for a decade.
The first of these reflections concerns Cyprus. The UK has to ask the uncomfortable question of whether it is time to end any effort to unite the island in a top-to-bottom diplomatic and political process, as it has already missed several historic moments when this was actually possible to achieve. The time has come to discuss whether what the UK should focus on is the economic integration of the island, an increase in social exchanges, and enabling Turkish Cypriots to have platforms and a voice. Thus, while not necessarily seeking to create a two-state solution for the island, a new framework that can ease isolation of the north is necessary, and it should focus on bottom-to-top long-term trajectories.
Make no mistake, while often omitted in op-eds, Cyprus lies at the heart of the current escalation and dead-end EU–Turkey conversations. Choosing to leave things as they are is clearly not sustainable.
The UK has taken a much more long-term perspective on Turkey, beyond universal anger at President Erdogan, and has often maintained good working relations with Ankara, which have proved to be of value in a variety of cases. Thankfully, no one in Whitehall or across the government wants to play the same op-ed trick of pulling NATO into tensions as a way of pressuring Turkey. NATO matters, and with all of the challenges it poses, having Turkey outside of structural alliances has a lot more implications on a wide range of issues. These range from the Black Sea to the Baltics, Balkans and operational capabilities, and not least to more than $5 billion of NATO investment in military facilities in the country.
Yet, as UK and EU relations are being negotiated and US–Turkey relations remain at a historic low, there has to be a discussion on how best the UK can or should exploit its rapport with Turkey to achieve stability in the Mediterranean. This in no way takes away from serious concerns over Turkey’s often self-harming attempts to achieve ‘strategic independence’, such as purchasing of Russian missile systems and Turkish politicians missing no opportunity to antagonise European leaders with polemical statements. However, the policy approach to address these is not the path taken by France. The UK should seek to be more public and visible in playing a constructive role, given many seem to want to deepen the rifts and escalate tensions for their own interests. As the cliché saying goes, ‘every crisis is an opportunity’. Just ask President Macron.
A Broader Perspective
The wider question of ‘the strategic South’ also deserves the UK’s attention. The above discussion already signals to the complexity of the region. NATO has, by and large, paid lip service to its southern flank for the last decade and still does not have a robust and upgraded engagement with its soft underbelly. The US has long moved on from the conversation. France is clearly pursuing a unilateral – and often deeply questionable – push to position itself, with direct calculations on defence industry and energy opportunities, as well as diplomatic and political capital, even when it has meant aligning with Russia and its mercenaries in Libya in their campaign to topple the UN-approved government in Tripoli in favour of a strong-man-in-waiting. In fact, France has attracted criticism for its selective rage on Libya and turning an eye away from serious human rights abuses by forces it supported, as well as its own suspected violation of arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council.
President Macron’s latest comments on Egypt and his approach to issues such as Islamism do signal a return to well-tried and frequently found wanting policies of preferring ‘secular’ strong leaders at the expense of everything else. Thus, just as in the idea that the West should engage more with Russia – which is often just a refrain of a lazy old mantra – Macron’s approach lacks originality. For the UK, the increasing Russian footprint in the Mediterranean has been a concern, and the fault lines that are emerging over the region offer premium opportunities for Russia to exploit and strain relations within NATO and EU states. Russia has already achieved its aim of alienating Turkey while keeping it within the alliance with its wooing of Ankara. From irregular migration to terrorism, the potential of a military escalation over energy disputes and exploitation of the tensions by Russia, there is a lot at stake for the UK.
So, what is the UK’s approach and vision in the middle of all of these fast developments? Can it afford to follow the same strategy as it did with Libya (namely, look away and remain quiet following the intervention that took Gaddafi out of the picture)? While Brexit may be an all-consuming project, the coronavirus pandemic might have given pause to foreign-policy thinking, and irregular migration in the English Channel might have caught the attention of the media and domestic audiences, the UK cannot be seen to be unengaged and unfocused as the long-anticipated tensions in the Mediterranean are playing out.
This is a good time to test the potential of a post-Brexit UK that maintains good bilateral relations with countries such as France, Germany, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, as well as with important stakeholders in these issues including the US, UAE, Egypt and Israel.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.