The EU’s New ‘Eastern Question’: Refugees, Gas, and Neo-Ottoman Imperialism

Visit of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Azerbaijan, 2020, wikicommons modified,

At the beginning of the 21st century, the endless conflicts of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East stand as a permanent puzzle for the European Union (EU). It is not by mere chance that this turbulence is happening. What we are watching today has deep historical roots frequently misunderstood or only partially known in the West. Probably, what we are seeing today is a re-emergence, albeit under other forms, of what was called the ‘Eastern Question’ in the European diplomatic history of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. This was a long period full of bloody conflicts, whose conventional milestones were the treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire of 1774, after the latter’s defeat — the Treaty of Küçük-Kaynarca in present-day Bulgaria; and the Treaty of Lausanne (Switzerland) in 1923, which formalized the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the emergence of modern Republic of Turkey.

Indeed, today we are seeing these issues reemerge, albeit in other ways. The deepest problem is that Europeans — more exactly Western Europeans — do not have an adequate mental and strategic framework to grasp this complex geopolitical puzzle. They are socialized in a discursive hegemony which takes the reality of Western Europe and the Euro-Atlantic World as suitable reading lenses for the Eastern Mediterranean, including Southeast Europe, and the Middle East; however, this is a useless reading guide to the reality of this part of the world.


Pitfalls of the Western past

The usual narrative on the origins of the European Union (formerly the European Community) in the post-World War II era shows the limits and pitfalls of a Western view. Looking at today’s enlarged European Union, it is a limited explanation, almost entirely built on Euro-Western historical and political experience. Fundamentally, it was created around the tragic memory of a conflict between two European great powers — France and Germany — which started with the German unification of 1871, where France lost Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It also highlights the role of exacerbated nationalisms and imperial and colonial rivalries in the years of conflict and war. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, it emphasizes the tragedies of the two European civil wars: World War I (1914-1918) and the catastrophe of Nazism, which led to World War II and European (self) destruction. Undoubtedly this is a very important past; however, it is reductive to try to grasp the contemporary European Union only from this perspective. Other important historical-political experiences from the past are usually absent, although they are fundamental to the national identity of other European Union member states. Thus, the conventional narrative, which takes the part for the whole, has become a major intellectual obstacle to understanding the problems the European Union faces today in southeastern Europe and the Middle East.

A striking example of this incomprehension lies in the near total omission of impacts on the part of the ‘Eastern Question’ in the formation of contemporary political Europe, and in disregarding the roots of the conflicts therein. It is crucial to underline that they had nothing to do with the Franco-German dispute, nor with Euro-Western nationalisms.


The limits of Western European supranational integration

The Syrian war, now in its final stages at Idlib and in the Kurdish region of Northeast Syria, and the tensions along the border between Turkey and Greece over Syrian refugees, generate different perceptions in Europe. In Southern Europe, they interact with its own forms of national identity, and with historical processes of state-creation that were unusual in Western Europe. It is not a mere historical curiosity to know this reality. For the European Union, it is fundamental knowledge and a necessary tool to understand the geopolitical complexities of the 21st century, especially the problems in Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, it is no coincidence that those areas show clear difficulties in reproducing the success obtained in Western Europe. Indeed, the European supranational integration formula, invented by Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and others in the 1950s, was not designed for this reality. It is something that Eurocrats, familiar with creating rules by Euro-Western standards, do not even seem to conceive. As already explained, the integration process emerged around the historical dispute between France and Germany — hence the Franco-German axis as the ‘engine of the European Union.’ But that was not and is not the problem of other “Europes.”

So, when you move into Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, the ingenious political solutions invented in Western Europe — as already pointed out, to solve the specific problems of Western Europe — either work poorly or they don’t work at all.

There is an empirical, easily done test that corroborates the above statements. The areas of greatest geopolitical turbulence in the South / Southeast proximity of the European Union, or even already within — the case of the Balkans including Greece and Cyprus, but also Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel / Palestine and Libya —, everyone has a common historical-political contact point: usually territories of the former Ottoman Empire (Brown, 1996, pp. xiii e xiv.), where there are significant sequels of that past. For many it may seem too distant to have a major impact on the region’s geopolitics; however, it is not so. Due to the double effect of its extension in time until the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the countless sequels it left, it remains closer historically — and much more present — than one might think. Fundamentally, three recent circumstances have given it renewed political relevance: Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government trying to reconstruct a sphere of influence in the empire’s lost territories; also, the migrants / refugees crisis, generated mainly by the war in Syria; and lastly, major natural gas reserves were found in the Eastern Mediterranean.


The new ‘Eastern Question’

In the new Eastern Question, the European Union, heir to the Western European powers except the British (now outside the EU), is no longer facing the classic nineteenth-century problem — the decadence of the “sick man of Europe”, as stated by the Russian Tsar Nicholas I — that of the Ottoman Empire/Turkey. Now the historical cycle seems to be more favorable to the resurgence of Turkey, and perhaps Russia too, and to a relative decline of Europe, even taking into account the successes of the European Union in peace and well-being. Thus, the new Eastern Question is not marked by the problems of a territorially receding empire, as in the 19th century. Now, an ambitious Turkey is rising in economic and military terms, as well as in cultural and political reconnection with its Islamic and Ottoman past. As already pointed out, Turkey wants to project its power and influence on the ancient Ottoman territories, from the Balkans to the Middle East. There is a kind of neo-Ottoman imperialism in the current foreign policy of Turkey. It is not relating to territorial conquests as it used to be in the past, but mainly about promoting its religious-political, cultural, and economic influence in deepening the Islamic and Ottoman connection. This goes from the Muslims of the Balkans to the Arabs in Middle East to the Turkish peoples of Central Asia. In such a strategy, the ideological proximity of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party with political Islam is also an asset. Thus, the Islamist movement Muslim Brotherhood, active in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Libya and others, is a privileged partner in this Turkish expansionist policy.

Another striking dimension of the new Eastern Question is the problem of migrants/refugees. In the beginning of October 2019, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened the European Union with “opening the gates and sending in 3.6 million refugees.” Syrian refugees are a classic Turkish instrument of pressure over the European Union. Humanitarian crisis relating to war refugees is nothing new in Europe; however, this does not happen due to the usual reasons concerning the Euro-Western narrative on European Communities, such as building peace and solidarity, which repudiated the war and nationalisms of the first half of the 20th century.

In Eastern past experiences, the traumas of the wars linked to the collapse of federal Yugoslavia in the 1990s are a very vivid memory. But more profound than all that, is the past of the Eastern Question intertwined with the process of establishing sovereign states in that part of Europe. There were long and bloody struggles against the oppression of the Ottoman Empire that deeply pervaded the culture and identity of those peoples. The current migrant waves fuel fears of claims on their territories that Western Europeans underestimate or do not conceive. Any change in the demographic component of one ethnic or religious group, compared to another group, is politically very sensitive. Mass migrations from the Arab-Islamic Middle East and Africa tend to have this effect. The perception is also explained by the fact that national independence was achieved in the midst of enormous suffering from war, massacres and forced displacement of populations. But in the world of a century or two ago, human crises in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East were confined to the territories where they occurred, and to the contiguous areas. Nowadays, in an era of globalization and with open borders within the European Union, they are rapidly extending into it, with serious human and political consequences.

In addition to this geopolitical complexity, now there is natural gas as a disputed energy resource. In the last decade, significant reserves of natural gas were discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean, located in the offshore area of Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, and Turkey. The main area under commercial exploitation is located in the waters between Israel and Cyprus. Thus, this energy resource has an economic and geopolitical impact on the region. It has already brought an important strategic realignment of convenience among Cyprus, Greece and Israel, to which Egypt has joined. In the opposite field is Turkey, involved in a territorial dispute with Cyprus, which has been militarily occupied by Turkey in the northern of the island since 1974. Now, Turkey asserts that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — a creation of Turkey without international recognition — also has an exclusive economic zone of exploitation.

In this dispute, Russia has some converging interest with Turkey. Russia intends to continue, as much as possible, its monopoly of supply to Eastern and Central Europe; hence, it is not interested in new suppliers, or in gas pipelines in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, which could break one of its biggest sources of revenue. The dimension of this new Eastern Question, non-existent in the past, has given rise to cross-political lines that extend inside the European Union. Three member states — Greece, Cyprus and Italy — are partners in the exploitation of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean; and a candidate state — Turkey — wants to inhibit development as much as possible, even using naval military pressure on European companies prospecting natural gas or extracting it in the area.


The need for a comprehensive European policy

In this context, a specific foreign and security policy from the European Union — and probably also a NATO strategy, as the two organizations are interconnected on security matters — is necessary to deal with the strategic problems arising from the new Eastern Question. However, a coherent policy and strategy imply, from the outset, to overcome the aforementioned obstacle of the usual mindsets. A clear understanding of the specificity of Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean is needed, taking in account the past and the present political peculiarities of these European and Mediterranean regions. Those obstacles are not easy to overcome. Paradoxically, in the Euro-Atlantic cultural logic and strategic thinking, the Americas or even certain parts of Africa are a more familiar reality than the geopolitical area in the periphery of Europe. In the Western view of the world — with the obvious exception of specialized studies — there is usually a superficial idea of Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition to overcoming this powerful obstacle, a comprehensive approach is required. It needs to combine geopolitical and strategic thinking with historical and cultural knowledge, with humanitarian sensitivity. Partly due to this fragile historical and geopolitical knowledge in the European Union, for too long inconsistent expectations were created regarding the state heir to a powerful empire — Turkey. With its very strong historical, cultural and political identity — and surrounding conflicts on its borders — Turkey cannot simply be absorbed by European Union, i.e. Europeanized along the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ for accession, like any other country with a Western and Euro-Atlantic heritage (mostly, small or medium countries). Thus, the resurgence of this past, albeit in other forms, has given rise to a new Eastern Question in 21st century – one that Europe cannot evade.

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