Just a few years ago, Turkey and Greece were doing just fine — but now they are on the brink of war. The European Union is clearly steering away from taking a stance and seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The last move by the EU was paying lip service to Greece by pledging solidarity and kicking the ball down the road until September 24. That’s what came of the informal Gymnich council of the EU foreign ministers in Berlin and its post-meeting negotiations.

The Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias already presented options for future sanctions against Turkey at the Gymnich. What will happen on Sept. 24 is the presentation of the sanction options to the European Council. 

That means that there has been no green light for de-escalation from Turkey nor progress in establishing dialogue between Athens and Ankara. In that case, the sanctions option will be really on the table. However, it seems unlikely that Germany would agree to the introduction of sanctions during its term of Presidency of the EU Council. So, we may expect that the sanctions ball will be kicked further and further away, until the end of the year. In January 2021, Portugal takes over the Presidency — then, this problem-free European country may have the headache of imposing sanctions on Turkey. 

In High Commissioner Josep Borrell’s words, if sanctions are actually imposed, they would be devised in a way “to limit Turkey’s ability to explore for natural gas in contested waters [and] could include individuals, ships or the use of European ports.” 

So, the possible sanctions would target the economy by blocking Turkish vessels’ access to EU ports and supplies. There could also be other sanctions on behalf of the EU directed at the Turkish economy.

On the one hand, this policy would cast Turkey as the “other”: the “enemy at the gates” that Europe needs to mobilize against. This policy was spearheaded by France, but its support is increasing.

On Sept. 2, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz went as far to state that “if we give in to Erdoğan and Turkey, then good night, Europe.”

Compared to Kurz’ blunt tone, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s remarks a few days before the Austrian chancellor’s seem more toned-down, but they still lead in the same direction. Le Drian said: “Europe needs to leave the age of innocence behind and shape its own destiny.” This was at a meeting in Paris that was also attended by Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Clearly addressing Germany, Le Drian added that “Europe has a duty to respond collectively when one of its members is facing a policy that is aggressive and unjustified, and poses a threat against the Union’s sovereignty and interests.”

So far, intervention by other parties, such as NATO, has turned out to be more counterproductive than reconciliatory. Apparently alarmed that an actual clash between two of its members would mean a fatal blow to its already disputed existence, NATO intervened. NATO’s General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg chirped in with a tweet that negotiations are underway:

“Following my discussions with Greek and Turkish leaders, the two allies have agreed to enter into technical talks at NATO to establish mechanisms for military de-confliction to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the eastern Mediterranean.” 

But Greek side vehemently denied this. What NATO seems to have been doing is getting “somewhat guarantees” from Turkey — especially the military side — that an unexpected clash at the Aegean will be prevented. NATO’s communication was limited to military circles for both sides, and did not include any political commitment. 

So: how will the political side proceed?

The Greek side seems to be busy getting multilateral on the issue, whereas the Turkish side seems to be in communication with just Germany, Borrell and NATO, maintaining its “social distance.” On September 15, Athens will personally welcome France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the European Council President Charles Michel. As a reminder, Michel is part of the bandwagon of the European leaders reiterating EU solidarity with Greece and Cyprus.

Until the EU summit on September 24 and 25, the EU Commission (meaning Borrell) and Germany will try to pressure Turkey to pursue de-escalation steps in the Aegean. According to top EU officials, updating the Customs Union and continuing funding for Syrian refugees will be on the table as “carrots.” Ankara wants to have the visa-free travel deal, too, but that seems unlikely. to say the least.

Actually, both the Customs Union update and the prolonging of funding for Syrian refugees are issues that should have been dealt with anyway. The fact they are being presented as “carrots” to assist the Greece-Turkey deal is an indication of how stalled relations are between Brussels and Ankara. 

So far, the mutual “controlled crisis escalation” policy of Athens and Ankara has somehow worked. It has “worked” in the sense that there has been no war, but tensions have risen higher and higher. 

But what if things get out of control within this “controlled crisis escalation” policy? What if a sudden spark causes the deaths of soldiers or civilians from either side, or both? What if NATO’s half-hearted attempt is not to prevent actual clashes?

I do not think anyone actually in charge really has an answer to that — not in the upper circles of Ankara, Athens, Brussels, or Berlin.

We must remember that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is approaching her political expiry date fast and she just will not be able to conduct her “moderation policy” towards Turkey. And Greece is indeed an actual part of the EU. How long can Brussels keep looking away? If it goes on like this, sanctions or not, the EU will have to do something and relations will worsen even further — as if they are not already at rock bottom.

How long can this “controlled crisis escalation” be pursued by both Athens and Ankara? 

Is the sky the limit? In this case, it might really be the case.

Sometimes, war is just a momentary decision made on the ground (in this case, in the sea and the sky). India and China came to the brink of war back on June 15 when scores of soldiers died from both sides (the exact figure is unknown but it is estimated that there were around 65 casualties).

Both Turkey and Greece have a highly volatile, emotional political and social culture. In such a case in which the “controlled crisis escalation management” collapses in a lethal way, there would be permanent damage to relations.

If deaths occur, whatever happens between Greece and Turkey will not be like what happened between Russia and Turkey, as in the case of the downing of the Russian military plane by Turkish Armed Forces in 2015 and the bombing of 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib in 2019.

Are we ready for that?