Athens, Greece – On the eve of a decisive summit, the heads of state and government of the European Union are facing a difficult balancing act between relations between the EU and Turkey.
The EU Council meeting, with the dispute over the Eastern Mediterranean high on the agenda, will take place on Thursday and Friday after it was postponed last week when the President of the Council, Charles Michel, tested positive for the novel coronavirus .
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a letter to the 27 heads of state and government: “I would like to emphasize once again that we are ready for a dialogue with Greece without any preconditions.” He called on Brussels to “remain impartial” to help solve a “new test” in bilateral relations.
On the one hand, the heads of state and government of the EU are keen not to anger Turkey as it is preparing to resume a dialogue with Greece on the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction after a break of four and a half years.
On September 13, Turkey withdrew its exploration vessel Oruc Reis from waters granted to Greece under United Nations maritime law. A summer long break almost led to the two NATO members going to war. The withdrawal of Oruc Reis met a Greek requirement for talks to resume.
On the other hand, the heads of state and government of the EU are faced with a strong demand for sanctions against Turkey on the part of EU member Cyprus, to which Turkey has shown no weakening.
A Turkish seismic survey ship and a drill ship remain on the Cyprus continental shelf – an area where Cyprus has exclusive rights to exploit the mineral wealth below the seabed.
The weighing of rewards and penalties for Turkey is made difficult 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 drop its threat of veto without getting something in return. We could hit a dead end. The thriller at this summit will be about Cyprus, ”said Kostas Yfantis, professor of international relations at Panteion University in Athens and an expert on Turkey.
Unsurprisingly, Cyprus’s stance has irritated Nordic politicians, who are closer to the Belarusian border than the Turkish ones.
“Cyprus continued to veto sanctions against oppression and election fraud in Belarus. This will be a powerful argument for abandoning unanimity on such issues, ”tweeted former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who now presides over the European Council for Foreign Relations, a think tank.
Germany, currently holding the EU presidency and helping to broker the renewed talks between Greece and Turkey, has reportedly instructed Cyprus not to expect sanctions as this will exacerbate Turkey’s stance and be counterproductive.
Many Greeks and Greek Cypriots see this as a reassurance.
“I don’t understand the logic. You now have a power with armies on Syrian, Cypriot, Iraqi and Libyan soil, three of which are illegal … and we have an EU that we are obsessed with [Belarus president Alexander] Lukashenko does not hold fair elections, ”said Angelos Syrigos, professor of international law and MP.
The most recent diplomatic turmoil was sparked on July 21 by Turkey, which announced its intention to search for oil and gas in waters granted to Greece under United Nations law of the sea. The navy of the two countries remained fully operational for the remainder of the summer. In Cyprus, however, Syrigos is of the opinion that the heads of state and government of the EU have not advocated sovereign European maritime law for years.
“What has happened on the Greek continental shelf in the past two months has happened since 2014 on the Cyprus continental shelf. If Cyprus had an army and a war threatened, it would have stopped immediately … Greece has an army and that’s why the EU gets involved. “
Greece, usually a staunch supporter of ethnically Greek Cyprus, officially takes a hands-off approach.
“What is really important is that we have the list of sanctions because this seems to have deterred Turkey’s provocative actions recently,” said Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas on September 23.
A leaked list of sanctions approved by EU foreign ministers in late August ranged from targeting companies supplying goods and services to Turkey’s fleet of exploration vessels to cutting EU disbursements to Turkey and European bank loans to Turkish companies.
However, Greek experts are sure they see the EU’s stance as hypocritical.
“Cyprus says the obvious: you cannot have sanctions against Belarus … which does not directly concern an EU member – they are basically sanctions – and they do not have against a third country that actually tramples on Belarus’ maritime sovereignty a member state” said Konstantinos Filis, Executive Director of the Institute for International Relations in Athens.
Filis thinks it is likely that Turkey will suspend talks with Greece unless it is under pressure from the EU.
“Greece doesn’t want sanctions to punish the Turkish people or the Turkish economy. She wants Turkey to join a responsible policy that does not destabilize or hostile to EU members. I don’t think there is any disagreement about this. The level of enthusiasm varies depending on the depth and duration of the measures, ”he said.
The stalemate between Greece and Turkey has revealed deep divisions within the EU towards Turkey. France and Austria have taken the strongest anti-Turkish positions alongside Greece and Cyprus, but broader EU solidarity has also been expressed.
On September 10th, seven EU members in the Mediterranean (Portugal, Spain, France, Malta, Italy, Greece, Cyprus) condemned Turkish actions when they met in Corsica for their annual summit. The Med7 Declaration expressed “full support and solidarity with Cyprus and Greece in the face of repeated violations of their sovereignty and sovereign rights, as well as Turkey’s confrontational measures”. The fact that this declaration was signed by two of Turkey’s largest trading partners, Italy and Spain, had diplomatic implications.
In her annual speech on the state of the EU a week later, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was clear: “Yes, Turkey is in a difficult neighborhood. And yes, it is home to millions of refugees, for whom we are giving substantial support. But none of this is a justification for attempts to intimidate one’s neighbors. Our Member States, Cyprus and Greece, can always count on the full solidarity of Europe in protecting their legitimate sovereign rights. “
Germany has tried to stay away from talks as a mediator, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu praised it as “a truly objective country”.
At this summit, however, Greece and Cyprus will not look for objectivity, but for the EU solidarity suggested by von der Leyen.