El-Sisi’s Visit to France Is the Main Act in a Long-Running Greek Drama Over Turkey

For both leaders, the reason for their meeting had little to do with the esoteric debate they engaged in from the podium about religious values and human rights. Nor even the “shared interests” Macron touted at the press conference. They were concerned instead by the far more earthly topic of a solitary Turkish research vessel 2,000 kilometers away in the Mediterranean.

The voyage of the Oruc Reis survey vessel must be one of the more mundane prologues to a Greek drama, yet it has had political consequences from the heart of Europe to the Arabian Gulf. Since the summer, the Turkish vessel has been exploring disputed, and potentially gas-rich, areas of the Mediterranean, provoking a response from both the Greek and French militaries.

So shaken has Athens been by exploration of what it considers to be its sovereign waters – and by the seeming inability of the European Union to stop it – that it sought a rapid political alliance with the United Arab Emirates. The two countries suddenly signed a defense pact in November. In return, last week the UAE, for the first time, joined the Medusa military exercise with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt off the coast of Alexandria. France, again for the first time, joined as well.

Most intriguingly, Athens also formally sought in late November to purchase up to 24 F-35 jets, the most advanced fighter aircraft the United States has. This is intriguing because Greece’s stuttering economy can ill afford the expenditure. In any case, delivery would not be made for many years, and it would seem politically impossible to use them against a neighboring Nato country.

(Such is the tangled world of arms sales and international relations that the US immediately “welcomed Greece’s interest,” despite the intended target being a Nato ally of both, whereas the UAE, which also wants F-35s to defend itself against a country the US considers an enemy, may still be blocked in the US congress from purchasing them.)

The real story of how El-Sisi ended up on a state visit at this moment lies in Europe and particularly in the European Union’s refusal – as Paris sees it – to take strong action against Turkey. For a week prior, there had been tough talk and multiple stories in the European press claiming the EU was moving toward sanctions. Germany is the main obstacle, favoring more dialogue, but even the foreign minister has said that “there had been too many provocations.” Still, there appears to be little appetite within the EU, more broadly, to act.

For his part, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears to have detected this reluctance and has reasoned that a small gesture would be sufficient to calm nerves – last week, the Oruc Reis suddenly returned to port. Ahead of the summit, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, made conciliatory statements and urged “common sense.”

Turkey did the same thing ahead of the last EU summit in October, which also threatened sanctions, again withdrawing the Oruc Reis days before. In the end, apart from tense words and threats, there were no sanctions, nor even agreement on what might trigger them. The Oruc Reis, and its intimidating escort of warships, was soon back in Mediterranean waters.

Erdogan may be calculating that, in a crunch moment for Britain’s departure from the bloc – with last-minute negotiations already appearing to go badly – the EU is hardly looking for a new fight. He no doubt expects the Oruc Reis to set sail again shortly.

Macron is not putting his faith in EU diplomacy. In his view, the slow and deliberate multilateralism of the EU is not nimble enough for the purpose at hand. So he is seeking to “internationalize” this dispute beyond the EU’s borders, and the only way to do that is via Cairo. If Macron wants to be sure he won’t get bogged down in endless EU diplomacy and can respond forcefully to Ankara, building a Mediterranean alliance is the best way.

EU diplomacy, after all, favors Turkey. Nothing would please Erdogan better than to keep the arguments among the European Union countries. There, Turkey has both leverage, with the threat of allowing more refugees into Europe, and more to gain, by tying negotiations about drilling rights and borders to the status of Cyprus, visas for Turkish citizens and technical customs union questions – precisely the kind of debates that could drag on for months.

But if Macron can bolster fledgling Greece-Egypt cooperation – recall the two signed a maritime deal in August to rival a Turkey-Libya agreement – then the conflict becomes an international dispute in which France can play mediator. And just as with Russia’s mediation in Syria, Paris would happily mediate with its thumb on the scale.

That is the real background to El-Sisi’s appearance in Paris. While an audience attuned to domestic political drama questioned the leaders about cartoons and the detention of human-rights activists, Macron had his eye on a long-running Greek drama far away – one in which he is quietly assembling an anti-Turkish chorus.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.