EU prepares for standoff over Turkish sanctions

Europe stands behind Greece in the east Med crisis but is hesitant of Cyprus’s insistence on sanctioning Ankara.

Turkey's Oruc Reis was withdrawn from a disputed area of the eastern Mediterranean that was at the heart of a summer standoff between Turkey and Greece over energy rights [Burhan Ozbilici/AP]

Athens, Greece – European Union leaders face a difficult balancing act over the EU-Turkey relationship.

The EU Council meeting, with the eastern Mediterranean dispute high on the agenda, takes place on Thursday and Friday after being postponed last week when the council’s president, Charles Michel, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a letter to the 27 leaders: “I would like to emphasise once again that we are ready for dialogue with Greece without any preconditions,” as he urged Brussels to “remain impartial” to help resolve a “new test” in bilateral relations.

But as the meeting began on Thursday, a Cypriot diplomat, according to Reuters news agency, said his country would stand firm against sanctions on Belarus – which other European countries have called for, unless sanctions on Ankara were implemented first.

On the one hand, the EU leaders are eager not to upset Turkey as it prepares to reopen a dialogue with Greece on delimiting maritime jurisdictions, after a hiatus of four and a half years.

On September 13, Turkey withdrew its exploration ship, Oruc Reis, from waters awarded to Greece under the UN Law of the Sea. A summer-long standoff nearly saw the two NATO members go to war. The Oruc Reis’s withdrawal fulfilled a Greek precondition for talks to recommence.

On the other hand, EU leaders face a strong demand for sanctions against Turkey from EU member Cyprus, towards which Turkey has shown no softening.

A Turkish seismic survey ship and a drillship remain on Cyprus’s continental shelf – an area where Cyprus exercises exclusive rights to exploit mineral wealth under the sea bed.

Weighing up rewards and punishments for Turkey is complicated by the fact that the EU is currently trying to assert its authority in Belarus as well, by levying sanctions for election fraud there. Cyprus threatens to veto those plans if it does not get sanctions against Turkey.

“It will be extremely difficult for Cyprus to drop its veto threat without getting something in return … we could hit a dead end. The thriller at this summit will be over Cyprus,” said Kostas Yfantis, a professor of international relations at Panteion University in Athens and Turkey expert.

Unsurprisingly, Cyprus’s stance has caused irritation among Nordic politicians closer to the Belarusian border than the Turkish.

“Cyprus continues to veto sanctions against the repression and election falsification in Belarus. This will become a powerful argument in favour of abandoning the principle of unanimity on issues like these,” tweeted Swedish former Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who now co-chairs the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank.

Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency and helped broker the renewed Greece-Turkey talks, has reportedly told Cyprus not to expect sanctions on the grounds that they will harden Turkey’s stance and be counterproductive.

Many Greeks and Greek-Cypriots see this as appeasement.

“I don’t understand the logic. You now have a power with armies on Syrian, Cypriot, Iraqi and Libyan soil, in three of them illegally … and we have an EU obsessed with [Belarus president Alexander] Lukashenko not holding fair elections,” said Angelos Syrigos, a professor of international law and member of Parliament.

The latest diplomatic flurry was triggered on July 21 by Turkey announcing it planned to look for oil and gas in waters awarded to Greece under the UN Law of the Sea. The two countries’ navies remained fully deployed for the rest of the summer. In Cyprus, however, Syrigos believes EU leaders have been failing to stand up for European sovereign maritime rights for years.

“What’s been happening on the Greek continental shelf for the last two months is happening on Cyprus’ continental shelf since 2014. If Cyprus had an army and were threatening war this would have stopped immediately … Greece has an army and that’s why the EU is getting involved.”

Greece, normally a staunch supporter of ethnically Greek Cyprus, is officially keeping a hands-off approach.

“What’s really important is that we have the list of sanctions because that is what seems to have acted as a deterrent to Turkey’s provocative actions recently,” said Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas on September 23.

A leaked list of sanctions approved by EU foreign ministers in late August ranges from targeting companies that supply goods and services to Turkey’s fleet of exploration vessels, to cutting off EU disbursements to Turkey and European bank credit to Turkish businesses.

Greek experts, however, are clear they consider the EU stance hypocritical.

“Cyprus is saying the obvious: You can’t have sanctions against Belarus … which doesn’t directly affect an EU member – they’re sanctions of principle – and fail to have them against a third country that’s actually trampling on the maritime sovereignty of a member state,” said Konstantinos Filis, executive director of the Institute of International Relations in Athens.

Filis believes it likely Turkey will interrupt talks with Greece unless it feels pressure from the EU.

“Greece doesn’t want sanctions to punish the Turkish people or the Turkish economy. It wants them so that Turkey will align itself with a responsible policy that isn’t destabilising or hostile to EU members. I don’t think there’s disagreement about that. There are varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on the depth and duration of the measures,” he said.

The Greece-Turkey standoff has revealed deep divisions within the EU towards Turkey. France and Austria have taken the most stridently anti-Turkish positions along with Greece and Cyprus, but broader EU solidarity has been expressed as well.

On September 10, seven Mediterranean EU members (Portugal, Spain, France, Malta, Italy, Greece, Cyprus) condemned Turkish actions when they met on Corsica for their annual summit. The Med7 statement expressed “full support and solidarity with Cyprus and Greece in the face of the repeated infringements on their sovereignty and sovereign rights, as well as confrontational actions by Turkey”. The fact that this statement was signed by two of Turkey’s biggest trading partners, Italy and Spain, carried diplomatic significance.

In her annual State of the EU speech a week later, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was unequivocal: “Yes, Turkey is in a troubled neighbourhood. And yes, it is hosting millions of refugees, for which we support them with considerable funding. But none of this is justification for attempts to intimidate its neighbours. Our Member States, Cyprus and Greece, can always count on Europe’s full solidarity on protecting their legitimate sovereignty rights.”

Germany has attempted to remain aloof as a broker of talks, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu praised it as “a truly objective country”.

But at this summit, Greece and Cyprus will be looking not for objectivity, but the EU solidarity von der Leyen alluded to.