Explainer

Turkish Military Maneuvering Pushed Italy and France to Join Forces in the Mediterranean. Now What?

Formerly competitors, Paris and Rome’s Pax Mediterranea may spell Ankara’s final estrangement from Europe.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron speak after the closing press conference of the seventh Med7 Mediterranean countries summit in Corsica on Sept. 10.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron speak after the closing press conference of the seventh Med7 Mediterranean countries summit in Corsica on Sept. 10. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

On Sept. 25, the heads of the 27 European Union nations were supposed to assemble at the European Council in Brussels to vote on sanctioning Turkey. At issue was what the EU had declared as Ankara’s illegal actions against Greece and Cyprus, both EU members. Specifically, Turkey has sent, and continues to send, ships to explore for undersea energy resources in those countries’ sovereign waters. The vote has now been pushed back a week due to a quarantine of the council’s president, but for Ankara, the delay only represents a postponement of the inevitable: a potential divorce from Europe. The troubled relationship has been frozen since 2018, when Ankara began its gunboat diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean. At that time, the council voted to freeze Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, and it suspended work on modernizing the bloc’s customs union with its eastern neighbor. A vote against Turkey next week could make the estrangement permanent.

The outcome of the sanctions vote could hinge on Italy’s longtime ambivalence. In the Byzantine complexity of Mediterranean geopolitics, it is Italy’s energy interests in war-torn Libya rather than its considerable investments in Eastern Mediterranean energy that will likely determine Rome’s choice. The mid-September resignation of the prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), who had been caught in complicated politicking among Italy, France, and Turkey, suggests that Italy may have arrived at a tipping point and a major reset in Italy’s Mediterranean policy is underway.

Why is Italy the European Union’s swing state?

To sanction Turkey, the European Council will need the unanimous approval of all EU member states, and the votes are far from assured. Stepping into the breach to rally the EU’s support for Greece and Cyprus, in early September, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey was “no longer a partner” in the Eastern Mediterranean and urged Europe to speak with “a more united and clear voice.” The main target of Macron’s exhortation was Italy, which is France’s traditional European competitor in the Mediterranean and which has been among the strongest advocates of closer EU-Turkey relations.

With Greece, Cyprus, and France advocating strong action against Turkey while Italy, Malta, and Spain demur, the Mediterranean is evenly split. But if Italy shifts toward France, resulting in a meeting of minds between the EU’s two largest Mediterranean states, then it is likely that the entire southern EU will swing in favor of some form of sanctions. The momentum in the EU as whole would then be for a tougher line toward Turkey. To this end, Macron has called for a “Pax Mediterranea,” managed by a partnership of the EU’s Mediterranean nations. Behind his high-flown Latin, Macron is offering Italy a realpolitik reset in the Mediterranean’s great game—a comprehensive Franco-Italian partnership to police the region.

Who sets the rules of the Mediterranean’s great game?

The four largest countries in the Mediterranean basin—Egypt, Turkey, France, and Italy—comprise over half the region’s population and define the rules of the Mediterranean’s great game. Despite the interventions of outside actors, from Russia to the United Arab Emirates, it is the jockeying among the Mediterranean’s big four to dominate the region’s energy resources and commercial transit routes that defines regional geopolitics.

The hard-power competition among the four—which also boast the Mediterranean’s four most powerful militaries—has mostly played out in the Libyan civil war, which has pitted a partnership consisting of France and Egypt against Turkey. France is one of Egypt’s largest weapons supplier and has covertly cooperated with Cairo in support of eastern Libyan forces against the western GNA, which is militarily backed by Turkey and which Italy supports.

Italy’s decision to side with the GNA and Turkey is part of a broader effort to protect its own energy interests in Libya and to pivot to the Mediterranean basin. That rebalancing has seen Italy’s exports to Mediterranean markets outstrip exports to the United States and to China. Yet despite Italy’s trade advances and proximity to the Mediterranean’s southern shores, the country’s development of markets in North Africa has been constrained by France’s supersized influence.

Until Macron’s reprioritization of French foreign policy, leading ultimately to his call for a Pax Mediterranea, Paris had been unwilling to allow its relationship with Rome to develop greater parity. But Turkey’s increasing assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya changed Paris’s strategic calculus—and may make Rome think twice about its alignment with Ankara—providing momentum for a comprehensive Franco-Italian rapprochement.

Why is Turkey at the heart of Italy’s Mediterranean energy conundrum?

At the center of Italy’s policies in the Mediterranean and Middle East is the energy company Eni, Italy’s largest company by revenue. Eni itself is under the de facto control of the Italian government, which holds the company’s largest share (30.33 percent). Oftentimes, that investment makes Italy’s interest in Eni’s operations barely distinguishable from Italian foreign policy overall. Eni’s holdings have been the source of contradictions in Italy’s foreign policy. The country is aligned against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Eni is the leading partner in Cyprus’s and Egypt’s natural gas development, but works in alignment with Turkey to support the GNA, in whose territory almost all of Eni’s oil and natural gas assets are concentrated.

In 2015, two events brought Italy’s Mediterranean energy paradox into a sharper contradiction. Eni’s August 2015 game-changing discovery of Egypt’s massive Zohr natural gas field, the region’s largest, meant that the Eastern Mediterranean now collectively had marketable volumes of natural gas. Eni, also the lead operator in Cyprus’s natural gas development and the lead stakeholder in one of Egypt’s two liquefaction plants, began promoting a plan to pool Cypriot, Egyptian, and Israeli gas and use Egypt’s liquefaction facilities to cost-effectively market the region’s gas to Europe as liquefied natural gas. Eni’s marketing scheme left no role for Turkey and its pipeline infrastructure to Europe. Dashing Ankara’s previously developed plans to become a regional energy hub, Eni’s energy development in Egypt and Cyprus set Italy and Turkey on a geopolitical collision course.

At the same time, Eni controls about 45 percent of Libya’s oil and gas production. In 2015, the year of Eni’s Zohr discovery, the GNA formed in Libya under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who enabled Eni to maintain stable energy production in the areas under the protection of the GNA-aligned militias supported by Turkey. In 2019, exports from GNA-held territories accounted for 8 percent of Italy’s total natural gas demand.

With Eni holding its Eastern Mediterranean interests in one hand while holding its Libyan energy interests in the other, Italy maintained an uneasy balancing act. But Turkey’s 2020 military intervention in Libya reshuffled Eni’s geopolitical deck.

How did Turkey reshuffle the deck for Italy’s energy geopolitics?

My previous explainer recounts why Turkey opted for a breakout strategy in Libya to redress its grievances with Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundaries. By helping the GNA-aligned forces drive back their opponents 280 miles to eastern Libya, Turkey reversed the course of Libya’s civil war. Turkey’s considerable air force presence at the recaptured al-Watiya air base, located 17 miles from Tunisia’s border, and its developing naval presence in the GNA coastal stronghold of Misrata have increased Ankara’s clout in neighboring Tunisia and Algeria.

But Turkey’s new outsized military presence in Libya and its growing regional influence have caused alarm in Italy. Although Turkey rescued Sarraj’s GNA, Rome cannot tolerate the GNA’s dependence on Turkey as a security provider to the extent it will render Eni’s energy interests subject to Ankara’s dictates.

And it is not just in Libya that Italy’s Eni feels vulnerable. In Algeria, Africa’s top natural gas producer, Eni is one of the leading foreign partners of Algeria’s state oil company Sonatrach. Eni and Sonatrach jointly own the 1,500-mile Trans-Mediterranean pipeline that transports Algerian natural gas via Tunisia to Italy. Natural gas from Algeria and Libya combined account for 28 percent of Italy’s gas imports.

In 2018, when Turkey started its gunboat diplomacy off the shores of Cyprus, Italy began turning to France to mitigate the risks in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the central Maghreb. In February 2018, the Turkish navy blocked an Eni ship from reaching its intended drill site in Cypriot waters, forcing the company to withdraw the vessel. In response, Eni brought on the French energy giant Total as a partner in all of its Cyprus operations. Also in 2018, Eni and Total joined forces in Algeria when the two companies formed a consortium with Sonatrach for the exclusive rights to explore for energy off Algeria’s coast. Within the same time frame, Total acquired significant new oil holdings in Libya without objection from Eni.

With Franco-Italian energy cooperation already established, Rome and Paris would not have much further to go to implement Macron’s Pax Mediterranea. And at least in Libya, the Franco-Italian reset may have already happened. On Sept. 13, the head of Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board responsible for Libya announced that the GNA was on the verge of signing an agreement to give Turkish energy firms a share of Libya’s oil and natural gas production. Two days later, Sarraj made the stunning announcement that he would resign in October, apparently catching Turkey off guard.

Sarraj’s move paves the way for the dissolution of the GNA and the formation of a unity government composed of officials from Libya’s rival halves that will be less beholden to Ankara. A strategic boon for Italy and France, Sarraj’s resignation likely involved coordinated action between Paris and Rome.

Could Turkey’s estrangement from Europe be permanent?

Even with newfound solidarity among the EU’s Mediterranean states, it will still be difficult to obtain the required unanimous vote of the 27 EU members to sanction Turkey. In turn, Europe will probably opt for only mild sanctions at most. Eastern EU states whose foremost concern is Russia are reluctant to antagonize Ankara, which fields NATO’S largest military after the United States and plays an important role in restraining Russian military adventurism on Europe’s eastern borders. Vividly illustrating the EU’s south-versus-east divide, Greece and Cyprus threatened to hold up pending EU sanctions on Belarus unless the council imposes “severe” sanctions on Turkey. On Sept. 21, Cyprus made good on that threat.

No matter the outcome of the council’s vote, Europe and Turkey may be on the path to a permanent estrangement. In the post-Brexit EU, the Germany-France-Italy triad is likely to replace the Germany-France-United Kingdom trio as the principal driver of European politics. And with France and Italy partnering up in the Mediterranean, Europe’s future stance toward Turkey is likely to stiffen.

Michaël Tanchum teaches international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Navarra, Spain and is a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES). He also holds fellow positions at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University, Israel, and at the Centre for Strategic Policy Implementation at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). Twitter: @michaeltanchum

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