Athens, Greece – European Union leaders face a difficult balancing act in EU-Turkey relations on the eve of a crucial summit.
The meeting of the EU Council, with the dispute over the Eastern Mediterranean at the top of the agenda, is taking place on Thursday and Friday, after it was postponed last week when Council President Charles Michel tested positive for the new coronavirus.
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote in a letter to the 27 leaders: “I would like to emphasize once again that we are ready for dialogue with Greece without any preconditions”, as he called on Brussels to “remain impartial” in order to help solve a “new test”
On the one hand, EU leaders are eager not to upset Turkey as it prepares to resume dialogue with Greece on the demarcation of maritime jurisdictions after a four-and-a-half-year hiatus.
On 13 September, Turkey withdrew its research vessel Oruc Reis from the waters awarded to Greece under UN maritime law. A long-running conflict has almost seen the two NATO members start a war. The withdrawal of Oruc Reis fulfilled the Greek precondition for the resumption of negotiations.
On the other hand, EU leaders face a strong demand for sanctions against Turkey by EU member Cyprus, to which Turkey has shown no easing.
A Turkish seismic survey and drilling vessel remains on the continental shelf of Cyprus, an area in which Cyprus exercises exclusive rights to exploit mineral resources below the seabed.
The weighing of rewards and punishments for Turkey is complicated by the fact that the EU is currently trying to assert its authority in Belarus by imposing sanctions for electoral fraud there. Cyprus threatens to veto these plans if it does not receive sanctions against Turkey.
“It will be extremely difficult for Cyprus to relinquish its threat of veto without getting anything in return … we may reach a dead end. The thriller at this summit will be over Cyprus, “said Costas Ifantis, a professor of international relations at the Pantheon University in Athens and an expert on Turkey.
Not surprisingly, Cyprus’ position has irritated Scandinavian politicians closer to the Belarusian border than Turkey’s.
“Cyprus continues to veto sanctions against repression and election fraud in Belarus. This will become a powerful argument in favor of abandoning the principle of unanimity on issues such as these, “wrote on Twitter the former Prime Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt, who is now co-chair of a think tank of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency and has helped resume renewed talks between Greece and Turkey, has told Cyprus not to expect sanctions on the grounds that they would worsen Turkey’s position and have the opposite effect.
Many Greeks and Greek Cypriots see this as a relief.
“I do not understand the logic. You now have power with armies on Syrian, Cypriot, Iraqi and Libyan lands, in three of them illegally … and we have the EU obsessed with [Belarus president Alexander] Lukashenko is not holding fair elections, “said Angelos Sirigos, a professor of international law and a member of parliament.
The latest diplomatic uproar was sparked on July 21st by Turkey, which announced plans to seek oil and gas in waters assigned to Greece under UN maritime law. The navies of both countries remained fully deployed for the rest of the summer. In Cyprus, however, Sirigos believes EU leaders have failed to uphold European sovereign maritime rights for years.
“What has been happening on the Greek continental shelf for the last two months has been happening on the continental shelf of Cyprus since 2014. If Cyprus had an army and threatened war, it would stop immediately … Greece has an army and that’s why the EU gets involved. “
Greece, which is usually a staunch supporter of ethnic Greek Cyprus, officially maintains a practical approach.
“What is really important is that we have the list of sanctions, as it seems to have acted as a deterrent to Turkey’s provocative actions lately,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Pezas said on September 23rd.
An expired 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 research vessels to suspending EU payments to Turkey and lending by European banks to Turkish business.
However, Greek experts are adamant that they consider the EU’s position hypocritical.
“Cyprus says the obvious: ‘You cannot have sanctions against Belarus … which does not directly affect an EU member – they are sanctions in principle – and you fail to impose them against a third country that is actually trampling on a Member State’s maritime sovereignty,’ he said. Konstantinos Phyllis, executive director of the Institute of International Relations in Athens.
Phyllis believes Turkey is likely to suspend talks with Greece unless it feels pressure from the EU.
“Greece does not want sanctions to punish the Turkish people or the Turkish economy. He wants them so that Turkey can come to terms with a responsible policy that is not destabilizing or hostile to EU members. I don’t think there is any disagreement about that. There is a different degree of enthusiasm depending on the depth and duration of the measures, “he said.
The confrontation between Greece and Turkey has revealed deep divisions within the EU vis-à-vis Turkey. France and Austria have taken the fiercest anti-Turkish stance, along with Greece and Cyprus, but wider EU solidarity has also been expressed.
On September 10th, seven Mediterranean EU members (Portugal, Spain, France, Malta, Italy, Greece, Cyprus) condemned Turkish actions when they met in Corsica for their annual summit. The Med7 statement expressed “full support and solidarity with Cyprus and Greece in the face of repeated violations of their sovereignty and sovereign rights, as well as confrontational actions by Turkey.” The fact that the statement was signed by two of Turkey’s largest trading partners, Italy and Spain, was of diplomatic significance.
In her annual speech on the state of the EU a week later, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was unequivocal: “Yes, Turkey is in a troubled neighborhood. And yes, it hosts millions of refugees, for which we support them with significant funding. But none of this is an excuse for trying to intimidate neighbors. Our Member States, Cyprus and Greece, can always count on the full solidarity of Europe to protect its legitimate sovereign rights. “
Germany tried to stay aside as a mediator in the talks, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu praised it as a “truly objective state.”
But at this summit, Greece and Cyprus will not seek objectivity, but EU solidarity, von der Leyen hinted at.