July 16, 2019
What next, after EU sanctions Turkey?
EU foreign ministers decided yesterday to impose financial and political sanctions against Turkey over its drilling activities in the territorial waters of Cyprus. This is certainly a step up in the diplomatic stand-off well beyond mere threats, but have they thought this through? It seems like there is some backtracking as the publication of the list of sanctions, scheduled for 10pm last night, was postponed.
What we know so far from Kathimerini and AFP sources is that sanctions include a freeze of pre-accession assistance worth €146m, and the suspension of negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement. There will also be some downgrading of high-level dialogues in the fields of economy, energy, transport and agriculture. The European Investment Bank has been asked to revisit the conditions for providing financial support to Ankara.
Turkey responded with a statement saying that it will continue and even increase its activities in the eastern Mediterranean, insinuating a not so innocent coincidence of the decision with the third anniversary of the failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan and his people see this standoff with the EU clearly as part of Erdogan's domestic survival battle.
It is easy to see how this stand-off can get worse. The two drilling ships have been escorted by the Turkish military, including drones, F-16 fighters, and warships. For some time now Cyprus likened Turkey's move to a second invasion, referring to the military coup that led to the breakaway of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1974. If Turkey enforces its drilling activities or its vessels meet with Greek or Cypriot vessels, the EU and Nato would be called to step in more forcefully.
What options are there to de-escalate the situation? Turkey refers in its statement to a comprehensive cooperation proposal the Turkish Cypriots submitted on July 13. They insist on equal exploitation rights for Turkish Cypriots. Peace talks between the two parts of the island collapsed in 2017. While negotiations to reunify the island have not restarted, Cyprus has moved to start gas and oil exploration by issuing licences.
Turkish also often refers to the protection of its own rights to the continental shelf. This is about the legality of Cyprus' exclusive economic zone, 200 miles off the Cypriot coast, where it has rights over the natural resources. It is less clear how far Turkey would go other than to issue threats from time to time. What is clear is that Turkey won't accept to settle the issue of who has the exploitation rights under international law, or any international dispute-settlement mechanism.
The EU is far from a unified position on how hard to clamp down on Turkey. Some member states are more cautious given Turkey's efforts to keep the flow of refugees out of the EU.