European Union leaders face a difficult balancing act over the EU-Turkey relationship, on the eve of a crucial summit.
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.
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.