EU threats of restrictive measures on Turkey over East Med drilling could prove shortsighted

Published 12.07.2019 00:08

The European Union is set to put high-level talks with Ankara and negotiations on an air transport agreement on hold, and has threatened to freeze funding for Turkey through the European Investment Bank next year, over Turkey's drilling for gas and oil off Cyprus, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters yesterday.

The joint EU decision, which may still be changed, was discussed among national envoys in Brussels yesterday with the aim of adopting it when the bloc's foreign ministers meet on Monday.

During a Wednesday meeting, the European ministers failed to reach unanimity on imposing these measures against Turkey, despite pressure by the Greek Cypriot government and its foreign minister, Nikos Christodoulides. It is, as a matter of fact, not an easy step for the EU to act against Turkey since both sides face high stakes. In addition to the fact that Turkey hosts more than 4 million refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians, the country is the fifth-largest trading partner of the bloc, a lucrative market for European goods.

Furthermore, a large number of European companies run highly profitable businesses in Turkey, an aspect of the country they cannot ignore. Therefore, it is not likely that Turkey will face expansive and critical sanctions from the EU.

"In light of Turkey's continued and new ‘illegal' drilling activities, the [EU] decides to suspend negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement and agrees not to hold further meetings of the high-level dialogues for the time being," the draft said.

"The council endorses the [European] Commission's proposal to reduce the pre-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020 and invites the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey, notably with regard to sovereign-backed lending," it said. It added that the EU would be ready to introduce more restrictive measures against Turkey should it continue with the drilling.

But, as the bloc needs Turkey in matters such as security and migration, an EU diplomat involved in the latest discussions told Reuters any future sanctions would be limited. "It would only be targeting people linked to these specific illegal activities. We're trying to calibrate that carefully because we need Turkish cooperation on migration, NATO and countering terrorism," the official said and went on: "Some member states rely on Turkey for energy transit, so we must tread carefully. Don't expect any wide economic sanctions."

Turkey has made continuous efforts to protect its sovereign rights and the rights of Turkish Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where it has been drilling in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which was registered with the United Nations in 2004.

It has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot administration's unilateral drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, saying Turkish Cypriots also have rights to resources in the area. Ankara on Wednesday lashed out at EU and Greek statements that Turkish drilling off Cyprus was illegitimate, stressing that these comments point to the usurpation of the rights of Turkish Cypriots on the island, and said it showed the EU could not be an impartial mediator on the Cyprus problem.

In a statement, Turkey's Foreign Ministry stressed Turkey will continue protecting its own rights and the interests of Turkish Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean as long as the Greek Cypriot side continues to exclude Turkish Cypriots in the decision-making mechanism, including revenue sharing on hydrocarbon resources and guaranteed rights.

"It is time to build bridges instead of walls," said the spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), commenting on the latest developments in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In a press conference held after the Central Decision and Executive Board (MKYK) meeting in the capital Ankara yesterday, Ömer Çelik said as long as the Greek side doesn't grant the Turkish Cypriots their rights, the Yavuz and Fatih drillships will continue their activities, while also criticizing the EU stance on the issue.

"…The European authorities should find a common solution where the rights of both parties are protected," he said. "The European Union is opting for stirring up trouble. The European Union should act on the basis of principles."

"Either the wealth is fairly shared, a common solution is found or Turkey will continue to defend Turkish Cypriots' rights," Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said at a news conference in the capital Ankara on Wednesday. Underlining that Turkey will maintain its drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, Çavuşoğlu said, "[Those] other than the guarantor countries have no right to speak on this issue. They shouldn't take sides."

Since last spring, Ankara has sent two drilling vessels – Fatih and most recently Yavuz – to the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting the rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) over the resources of the region.

Turkey's first drillship Fatih launched drilling activities at the start of May, west of the Mediterranean island. The second drillship, Yavuz, arrived south of the Karpas peninsula on the eastern edge of the island on Sunday. The Foreign Ministry said the drillship will operate on behalf of Turkish Cypriots within the license areas granted by the TRNC to Turkish Petroleum in 2011.

Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Dönmez on Saturday said Yavuz would start drilling within a week.

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