Greek Cyprus threatens to veto EU enlargement over row with Turkey

Published 18.06.2019 14:11
This file photo shows the Fatih drillship off Turkey's southern Antalya province.
This file photo shows the Fatih drillship off Turkey's southern Antalya province.

Admitted into the European Union despite the unsettled Cyprus question and assurances to Ankara and Turkish Cypriots against such a move, the Greek Cypriot Administration finally plays the veto card on EU enlargement to push the 28-nation to back its unilateral hydrocarbon activities in Eastern Mediterranean and prevent Turkey's counter moves in the region.

EU ministers from the bloc's 28 states meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday to discuss starting formal membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia a year after France and the Netherlands had blocked it, demanding more reforms in the fear of upsetting their parliaments and voters at home.

North Macedonia has since sealed a landmark deal with EU state Greece, ending a decades-old name dispute and prompting a dozen EU states to publicly call to reward Skopje.

At stake is also the EU's own credibility and the bloc's willingness to act against what it sees as growing influence by Russia and other foreign powers in the region still scarred by wars fought along religious and ethnic lines in the 1990s.

Complicating matters further, the Greek Cypriot Administration has threatened to block the whole text on the future prospects of countries willing to join the EU - a group that also includes Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Balkans.

Diplomats said Nicosia was demanding a tougher EU line on Turkey over offshore drilling in Eastern Mediterranean, which the Greek Cypriot government says violates its unilaterally declared exclusive commercial zone.

Greek Cyprus and Greece said they could seek EU sanctions against Turkey, though the bloc is not seen acting on that for now. EU ministers meeting on Tuesday -- as well as the EU's national leaders due to meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday -- would, however, issue a warning to Ankara.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said on Tuesday he expected the EU would deliver a stronger message to Turkey against endeavors by Ankara to explore for gas in areas surrounding the island.

"I'm optimistic ... that the European Union will deliver stronger messages from what they have until today, and that is our objective," Anastasiades told reporters in Nicosia.

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 Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (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.

Turkey has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot Administration's unilateral drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, stating that the exclusive economic zone unilaterally declared by Nicosia violates part of Turkey's shelf, particularly in Blocks 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Saying that unilateral exploration deprives the Turkish Cypriot minority of benefiting from the island's natural resources, Turkey has ramped up efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara also sent its first drilling vessel, Fatih, to the region. The vessel is currently located some 40 miles west of Paphos in an area within Turkey's continental shelf which is also claimed by Greek Cyprus within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, it is not among the areas unilaterally licensed by Nicosia for hydrocarbons. The Greek Cypriot Administration has issued international arrest warrants for the ship's crew and officials from foreign companies assisting in the drilling. Turkey warned this week that it would give the "necessary response" to Greek Cyprus over the arrest warrants.

A joint declaration issued Friday at the end of the sixth Med7 summit in the Maltese capital La Valletta with the leaders of France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Malta and Greek Cyprus said the EU should "consider appropriate action" against Turkey if it doesn't stop an "illegal" hydrocarbon drilling bid in waters where the Republic of Cyprus has exclusive economic rights.

Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately responded and slammed the joint declaration, saying it has no value, provision or influence over Turkey, adding that the stance shows that "the EU and EU countries cannot be impartial and trusted actors in solving of the Cyprus question as well."

Greek Cyprus was admitted to the European Union in 2004, violating the EU's own rules of not allowing candidate countries with border disputes and assurances to Turkey and Turkish Cypriots that the Cypriot accession would not take place until a permanent solution had been reached on the island. The Greek Cypriot accession took place a week after a peace plan backed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was voted down in the South while being approved in the North. Greece and Greek Cyprus have long used the veto card in EU institutions against Turkey.

The current language of the EU draft ministerial statement it somewhat similar. It says Turkey "continues to move further away from the European Union" and calls on Ankara to stop "illegal" drilling.

Diplomats said Greek Cyprus was seeking a clearer threat that, should Ankara not change tack, the EU could formally end talks on upgrading its customs union with Turkey and on the right for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU, as well as cutting funds for the key NATO ally.

The EU formally halted Turkey's long-stalled membership bid following the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt launched by the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and the government's response including a two-year-long state of emergency and dismissal and trial of tens of thousands of sympathizers of terrorist groups. While the relationship is tense, the EU still depends on Turkey on security issues, trade, energy as well as migration.

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