In their attempt to defuse the confrontation between Ankara and Athens, tactical differences between Germany and France may actually deliver more than speaking with one voice.
In foreign policy, most of the time the EU works on the basis of the lowest common denominator. Sometimes by compromise. And in rare moments by synthesis—and that’s when Europe works best. That’s what is happening today in the eastern Mediterranean.
But like every dialectic process, let’s start with the dilemma and the battle of ideas.
Guarded by warships and fighter jets, Ankara dispatches gas exploration ships in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece and Cyprus accuse Turkey of encroaching on their maritime territory and ask for European help. The Élysée sends naval ships to the contested waters. Berlin calls upon “Paris, Athens, and Ankara” to deescalate and work on a negotiated solution.
Germany’s pose as the “reasonable mediator,” suggesting the Mediterranean mess was everyone’s but its own fault, did not go down well in France. “Berlin has only its national interest in mind,” columnist Jean-Loup Bonnamy wrote in Le Figaro, going on the offensive. Benjamin Haddad of the Atlantic Council accused Berlin of “moral and strategic collapse.” Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, tweeted: “Putting on the same level, on the one hand, the attacked EU partner, Greece, and the partner that comes to support it and, on the other hand, the aggressor is absolutely unworthy. ”
Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund took it upon himself to counter the French armada of geopolicysplainers. Paris is alone, as its foreign policy is perceived “as old power politics with the goal to maximize French influence,” Speck suggested. François Heisbourg, a French veteran think tanker, replied bitingly: “Defense shouldn’t be treated as a spectator sport.”
Of course, these are mostly just Twitter wars. But German irritation over Paris not consulting Berlin when dispatching warships was real. As was the French being flabbergasted by Berlin’s public distancing from the French naval maneuver in support of Athens and Nicosia.
So, is the Franco-German honeymoon already over? Following the €750 billion Recovery Fund, President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to have finally clicked. Unilateralist Macron (think Russia or Libya) vowed to collaborate closely on foreign policy. Merkel embraced Macron’s “European sovereignty” paradigm. EU foreign policy looked like it could finally take off. Now those hopes already seem dashed. Araud’s conclusion drawn from the Franco-German disunity on the eastern Mediterranean: “The EU will never be a geopolitical power.”
On August 20, Merkel visited Macron at the summer residence at Fort de Brégançon near Marseille, where the following exchange ensued.
“My wish is that Europe’s action (on Turkey) is efficient as a whole. … This requires a coordination with Germany that leverages our respective strengths,” Macron said. Merkel added, “There are different possibilities of action. You can help our European partners, as France did, by sending a ship and promising support. On the other side we have tried to get the dialogue between Turkey and Greece going again. … Out of these different parts there should result a common larger project, and thus I believe, you can’t weigh these different (France’s and Germany’s) actions against each other.”
Macron went on: “This is complementary. Facing disinhibited regional powers, diplomacy without red lines and a military presence doesn’t work, at least not very long. But a military presence without a diplomatic solution is counterproductive, as it just leads to escalation. You have to do both things and that’s what we do.” Merkel replied to this with “Exactly!”
One could dismiss these statements as mere face-saving attempts. But there is more to it than that. Even if they did not have this in mind initially, Macron and Merkel have come to agree on a two-pronged “good cop, bad cop” approach to dealing with Turkey that is not only promising, but also allows both to stick with their national interests.
True, Berlin is also concerned about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s brinkmanship policy. Unchecked by the United States and NATO, Ankara has pursued a successful expansionist campaign in recent years. Erdoğan carved himself out a buffer zone in Syria, effectively calls the shots in Libya’s west, and has bases in northern Iraq. Next project: The eastern Mediterranean, or what Erdogan calls the “blue homeland.” Macron was right in saying last Friday, “Germany and other partners begin to agree with us that Turkey’s agenda is problematic today.”
Still, Merkel doesn’t want to push back. Germany and gunboat diplomacy don’t rhyme. The chancellor also fears that confronting Erdoğan could drive Turkey further into Russia’s orbit. But above all, Merkel does not want to endanger her 2016 refugee deal with Erdoğan. In Berlin, Turkey policy is to a large extent migration policy.
Like Germany’s “honest broker” pose, France’s front as “selfless European” is skewed. Macron boasted of the French naval deployment. “We’ve sent a strong signal that European solidarity has a sense,” Macron said in tune with his wish that the EU should to be more of a defense union.
Sure, but the Élysée is also using the Turkish-Greek-Cypriot standoff to send Ankara a broader message: Stay in your place! Macron is worried about Ankara working with Islamist forces in Syria and Libya. Terrorism is the top issue for every French president. Macron doesn’t want Erdoğan to control Libya, either, dreading he would blackmail Paris with migrants as Muammar Gaddafi did. And Macron fears Erdoğan’s “expansionist policy mixing nationalism and Islamism” could appeal to North African nations. Erdoğan needs to be contained, Paris feels.
This “good cop, bad cop” approach may not be so great when it comes to the optics of the EU as a unified and sovereign geopolitical actor. But when it comes to solving the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean at hand, this could be the winning combination.
Bad cop France moving ships rebalances the military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and increases the cost of further escalation for Erdoğan. Paris pushing for a sanctions backdrop further incentivizes Ankara to negotiate. At the same time, good cop Germany leaves the door open for a face-saving off-ramp, while giving Macron the confidence to escalate. Paris knows: If the situation really gets out of hand, there is still catch-all Merkel.
Speaking with one voice is the precondition for the EU becoming an effective geopolitical player, or so goes the truism. But in a union of 27 nations this is hardly a realistic prospect. Europe will always speak with different tongues and tones. But Europe’s disagreements and the fierce debates on Twitter can sometimes also be its real force. Hegel would agree.