European Council’s restrictive measures no deterrent for Turkey to continue drilling in Eastern Mediterranean

Published 16.07.2019 09:08
Updated 18.07.2019 17:55
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The European Union’s decision to implement a set of restrictive measures on Turkey is unlikely to yield any significant impact and will not deter Ankara from its full commitment to the operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The measures will only render relations colder, which have been on icy ground for the last three years

Turkey, the country with the longest shore in the Mediterranean, has on every possible occasion conveyed its commitment to the protection of its sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean and the rights of the Turkish Cypriots. Following the European Union Foreign Affairs Council decision on late Monday to implement a set of sanctions, or restrictive measures, against Turkey over its hydrocarbon drilling and exploratory operations in the Eastern Mediterranean in a location off the island of Cyprus, Turkey resolutely stressed that EU actions against Turkey would not yield major impacts and are not an element of deterrence for Turkey to abandon its efforts in the region.

The European Council's decision to suspend high-level talks with Ankara won't affect Turkey's determination "in the slightest" to continue hydrocarbon activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Foreign Ministry said Monday.

The ministry said the EU's failure to mention Turkish Cypriots – who have equal rights to the natural resources of the island – in its decisions, taken on Monday, "showed how biased and partisan the EU is on the subject of Cyprus."

Turkey will continue to protect its and Turkish Cypriots' rights and will increase its activities in this aspect, the ministry said in a statement.

It added that this decision is the latest example of how Greeks and Greek Cypriots abuse EU membership in line with their maximalist positions and how other EU countries become an instrument for carrying out this abuse.

Commenting on the EU sanctions Tuesday during a press conference in North Macedonia, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said there is "no need to take the decision seriously," because "they know it's impossible to implement it."

"The decision is taken to satisfy the Greek Cypriot community. The problem is that the rights of the Turkish Cypriot people are not guaranteed," he added.

Çavuşoğlu ​also said Turkey will soon send its fourth ship to the Eastern Mediterranean and will continue to increase its activities there.

Later on Tuesday, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Dönmez said Oruç Reis seismic exploration vessel will be sent to Eastern Mediterranean as the fourth ship to take part in hydrocarbon activities in the region after completing its current activities in the Marmara Sea.

The ship operated by the General Directorate of Mineral Research and Exploration (MTA) was built by Turkish engineers in a local shipyard in Istanbul and has been operating since late June 2017. The 86-meter-long and 22-meter-wide vessel is donned with 35 active cameras located at different angles onboard.

Moreover, the MTA Oruç Reis has a propulsion and maneuvering system with the capacity to conduct 2B and 3B seismic surveys in open seas.

Dönmez said the country will continue hydrocarbon exploration and drilling operations in the region with no interruption in its own continental shelf and in the blocks for which Turkey received a license from the Turkish Cypriot government in the north of Cyprus.

The European Council published a final declaration Monday following a meeting of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council which was attended by foreign ministers of its member states.

The council said in the statement that in light of "Turkey's continued and new illegal drilling activities, the Council will suspend negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement and agree not to hold the Association Council and further meetings of the EU-Turkey high-level dialogues for the time being."

It also endorsed a proposal to reduce the pre-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020 and invited the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey, notably with regard to sovereign-backed lending.

They also backed a proposal by the EU's executive branch to reduce financial assistance to Turkey for next year. The ministers warned that additional "targeted measures" were being worked on to penalize Turkey, which started negotiations to join the EU in 2005.

As a matter of fact, EU-Turkey talks on civil aviation had already come to a halt because of the Greek Cypriot administration.

In June 2016 the European Commission obtained the authorization from the Council to negotiate an EU-level aviation agreement with Turkey as proposed in the ambitious external aviation policy put forward with the 2015 Aviation Strategy for Europe, leading to a first round of negotiations with Turkey in November 2016.

The EU has been considering Turkey as a very important aviation partner for the 28-member bloc. In terms of passenger traffic volumes, among third countries, the Turkish market is one of the most important to the EU. With a large and growing aviation sector and a global international airport hub at Istanbul, Turkey is also an important provider of global connectivity to EU citizens.

For the aviation agreement to advance, Turkey and the Greek Cypriot administration had to launch a dialogue since both will be parties to the agreement. However, non-existent diplomatic relations had stalled any concrete process on the deal since both sides had to launch reciprocal flights.

"There is no need to take it very seriously, because there had been times that they cut the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) in the past. These are simple things. They are not things that will affect us," Çavuşoğlu also said Tuesday.

The EIB has been providing financial support for Turkish projects since the mid-1960s, but it has expanded the scope of the support packages in the last two decades given Turkey's increased integration into the bloc with candidate status. The bank has been focusing on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), transport, energy, environment and agriculture projects. Some of the projects include loan packages with state-run and private lenders for SMEs, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project, the Şişecam plant expansion project and energy efficiency projects. The bank has lent nearly 29 billion euros ($32.5 billion) since 2000. Loans to Turkey in 2018 alone reached 385.8 million euros.

The leader of Turkey's main opposition party slammed the European Council's decision to suspend high-level talks with Ankara. "We have rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, we will defend these rights to the end," Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Republican People's Party (CHP) chief, told his party's parliamentary group.

The CHP leader noted that they would never accept "possible sanctions imposed by the EU." "As long as the EU does not abandon its application of double standards to Turkey, it has no value on this territory," he stressed. He also criticized the EU's "insincerity" toward Turkey.

Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Ersin Tatar on Tuesday criticized the EU's reaction to the exploration and research activities by Turkey's drill ships in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Tatar said in a written statement that from the beginning the EU has been taking a pro-Greek stance, leading the Cyprus issue into an even worse stalemate. Tatar said the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) protests the EU's reaction to the drilling activities since the Yavuz is carrying out its activities with a license the TRNC provided to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

He also stressed that the TRNC, as well as Turkey, have a right to the hydrocarbon resources of the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and TRNC will continue their drilling activities, just like the Greek Cypriot side, Tatar said, adding: "This is the right way and there is no turning back."

EU decision harms spirit of bilateral relations

In a statement to Daily Sabah, Economic Development Foundation (IKV) Chairman Ayhan Zeytinoğlu stressed that the EU decision has no material impact but can only damage the spirit of EU-Turkey relations.

Drawing attention to the deteriorating relations between Turkey and the block since 2016, negatively affected by the decision not to open new chapters or accession negotiations and the inability to modernize the customs union due to political disparities and the lack of progress in visa liberalization process, Zeytinoğlu said the EU has already very limited space to impose sanctions on Turkey.

The punitive measures announced on Monday have limited impact, but they impair good intention and confidence which have to be the basis of bilateral rapport, he remarked.

"The EU is taking a strong stance against Turkey, an EU candidate with legitimate rights in the Eastern Mediterranean and the block is disregarding the rights of the Turkish Cypriots on the natural resources of the island. This attitude will do nothing but harm the future of Turkey-EU relations," Zeytinoğlu said. He underscored that the EU must observe the rights of the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey on the island and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Without seriously taking these two matters into consideration, it is not possible for the EU to play a constructive role on Eastern Mediterranean resources.

The IKV Chairman also stressed that the suspension of EIB loans and aviation agreement is in full contradiction of EU values and the current economic ties of the two parties.

EU indeed is the fifth largest trade partner of Turkey and the top investor in the Turkish economy. Particularly after the customs union agreement in 1996, bilateral economic and commercial relations have taken a consistent upward trend.

Turkey's imports from the EU fell to 77 billion euros in 2018 from 84.8 billion euros in 2017. Its exports to the bloc last year increased to 76.1 billion euros, up from 69.8 billion euros in 2017. As a result, Turkey's trade deficit with the EU, which stood at 15 billion euros in 2017, dropped to just 1.2 billion euros last year.

A European expert, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the issue, told Daily Sabah that the EU decision is unlikely to have an impact on the markets and on Turkish assets. The Turkish lira Tuesday gained 0.02 percent against the U.S. dollar and the Turkish stock market benchmark index BIST100 posted 0.93 percent rise at 5:25 pm and hit 98,985 points.

The expert also noted that the measures will probably decrease foreign direct investment from Europe over the next year, but nothing of a significant extent. "Cold relations are the new normal for EU-Turkey relations, I fear," he said.

Turkey's hydrocarbon explorations in Eastern Mediterranean

With a view to not allow any usurpation of Turkish rights related to the share of hydrocarbon resources on the island, Turkey has ramped up its efforts in the region by expanding its fleet of drilling and seismic vessels in addition to their accompanying military frigates.

Turkey's first seismic vessel, the Barbaros Hayrettin, bought from Norway in 2013, has been carrying out exploration in the Mediterranean since April 2017.

The Turkish-flagged drillship Fatih launched its offshore drilling operations on May 3 in an area located 75 kilometers off the western coast of Cyprus. The area falls entirely within the Turkish continental shelf registered with the U.N. and in permit licenses that the Turkish government in previous years granted to Turkish Petroleum, the country's national oil company. The second drillship Yavuz, a twin vessel of the Fatih, is located on the west of the island off Karpas.

Turkey's continental shelf rights lay in the area to the west of 32 degrees 16 minutes 18 seconds east longitude. The outer limits of the Turkish continental shelf in the above-mentioned maritime areas follow the median line between the Turkish and Egyptian coastlines to a point to be determined in the west of 28 degrees 00 minutes 00 seconds east longitude.

Turkey has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot administration's unilateral drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, saying Turkish Cypriots also have rights to the resources in the area. The unilaterally declared exclusive economic zone of the Greek Cypriot administration violates part of Turkey's shelf, particularly in Blocks 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Athens and Greek Cypriots have opposed the move, threatening to arrest the ships' crews and enlisting EU leaders to join their criticism. Last month, the Greek Cypriot administration reportedly issued international arrest warrants for 25 people, including for personnel of the Turkish drillship Fatih and officials from companies cooperating with the state-run Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO). Turkey denounced to arrest warrants as unauthorized and "meaningless."

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey used its guarantor rights to intervene on the island after a far-right Greek Cypriot military coup sponsored by the military junta then in power in Athens sought to unite the island with Greece. The coup followed decadelong inter-ethnic violence and terrorism targeting Turkish Cypriots, who were forced to live in enclaves when Greek Cypriots unilaterally changed the constitution in 1963 and stripped the island's Turks of their political rights.

The TRNC, established in 1983 on the northern one-third of the island, is only recognized by Turkey and faces a longstanding embargo in commerce, transportation and culture. Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriot Administration enjoys recognition by the international community as the Republic of Cyprus, established in 1960, which is a member of the EU.

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