Macron's Muscle-Flexing Will Make Mediterranean Tensions Worse

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As if the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean weren’t turbulent enough, Emmanuel Macron has decided to give them another vigorous stir. France, he says, will increase its military presence there to “monitor the situation in the region and mark its determination to uphold international law.”

The “situation” is the face-off between Turkey and Greece over territorial and hydrocarbon-exploration rights. Things turned tense this week when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended a brief pause in Turkish exploration efforts in waters contested by the Greeks. For good measure, Ankara launched naval exercises off the Greek islands of Rhodes and Kastellorizo.

Erdogan was apparently responding to the announcement of a new maritime border agreement between Greece and Egypt, which was plainly designed to counter growing Turkish ambitions.

Matters are coming to a head, and one major power has already intervened: The brief Turkish pause on exploration was engineered by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made a personal appeal to both Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

If Merkel is, as I have argued, the best candidate to mediate the conflict, then Macron is quite possibly the worst. The French leader and Erdogan share a mutual animosity, deepened by Turkey’s thwarting of Macron’s ambitions in Libya.

Macron has called for European Union sanctions against Turkey for what he described as violations of Greek and Cypriot waters and threats against the two EU members. He has previously accused Turkey, a fellow NATO member, of “a historic and criminal responsibility” in Libya. The Turks, no slouches at bellicose rhetoric, have denounced France as “the main [actor] responsible for the problems in Libya,” and described Macron as having suffered “an eclipse of the mind.”

Greece has welcomed Macron's announcement: Mitsotakis tweeted that Macron was “a true friend ... and also a fervent protector of European values.” Erdogan, predictably, is having none of it. “No one should see themselves as a giant in the mirror,” he said on Thursday, clearly referring to Macron. “They should not go after making a show.”

Ankara will have no difficulty dismissing the French leader’s claim to “uphold international law.” The Turks need only point to Libya, where Paris has sided with a rebel commander — who is, to boot, accused of horrific war crimes — against a government recognized by the United Nations. So much for European values.

There was never any likelihood of Macron repeating his last successful intervention in a Middle Eastern crisis. In the fall of 2017, he persuaded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to release Lebanon’s then Prime Minister Saad Hariri from a bizarre detention in Riyadh. The French president won deserved praise for facing down MBS, as he’s called, when other world leaders were reluctant to act. But that gambit worked because the Saudi prince craved Western approbation, and Macron’s in particular

Erdogan, on the other hand, has long since turned away from the West, and is especially contemptuous of the man who presumes to speak for it. Earlier this year, responding to Macron’s musing that NATO was becoming brain dead, the Turkish president said his French counterpart should “first check his own brain death.” He has dismissed other French offers of mediation — between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, for instance.

Macron is now sending two Rafale fighter jets and the naval frigate “Lafayette” to the Eastern Mediterranean. But these military maneuvers are unlikely to give Erdogan further pause. He has called Macron's bluff before: A recent effort by a French warship to halt a Turkish vessel off Libya was easily repulsed, forcing Paris to lodge a complaint with NATO. 

On the contrary, Macron’s move will serve Erdogan’s argument that the Europeans are ganging up against Turkey. It is also, incidentally, a useful political distraction from Turkey’s perilous economic condition. We should expect more jingoistic rhetoric from Ankara in the coming days.

The only other leader likely to be discomfited by Macron’s muscle-flexing is Merkel, whose already difficult task of calming the troubled waters will be made harder still by the French intervention.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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