Cyprus Warns EU Growth Veto Over Turkish Drilling

FILE - From left, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades, Spain Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, French President Emmanuel Macron, Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, Portugal Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Greek Prime Minster Alexis Tsipras pose on the occasion of the Mediterranean Summit of Southern EU countries in Valetta, Malta, Friday, June 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Jonathan Borg)

NICOSIA – Faced with Turkey preparing to begin drilling for oil and gas in the island’s waters, Cyprus said it could veto the European Union accession hopes of North Macedonia and Albania unless the bloc gets tougher against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Any EU member – Cyprus belongs to the union – can veto enlargement, a warning to Turkey as well which has been trying to join since 2005 but it seeing its hopes slip away over Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial stance, including jailing journalists.

Cyprus could find itself at odds with its closest ally, Greece, where Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras made a politically-costly deal last year to give away the name of the Greek province Macedonia to the newly-renamed North Macedonia.

He also lifted a Greek veto on the country getting into NATO and opening EU accession talks but Cyprus could prevent it with a veto, unsatisfied so far with EU press releases backing its government and urging Erdogan to back off drilling.

No sanctions have been proposed, including stopping Turkey’s EU hopes although Tsipras said that prospect should be put on the table, along with “specific measures” he wouldn’t specify, as Turkey is also provoking Greece in the Aegean, sending fighter jets and warships to violate Greek airspace and waters repeatedly with NATO looking the other way.

The EU, like NATO, is eager to add even countries like corruption-torn and scandalized Albania, where the opposition has protested what it said is a gangster state being run by Prime Minister Edi Rama.

The EU and the defense alliance want to keep Russian influence out of the Balkans and the region, a key reason why American lawyer Matthew Nimetz, the United Nation’s envoy, pushed Tsipras to give in on the Macedonian name talks.

Diplomats preparing for a June 18  meeting failed to reach an agreement on a joint legal statement, which needs unanimous backing of all EU states to be approved. “There has been a massive disagreement and it’s not sure at all that ministers tomorrow will be able to find an agreement,” an EU diplomat who wasn’t named told Reuters.

The latest – but still disputed – draft, which was seen by Reuters, would push any decision on North Macedonia and Albania to October and after the German parliament is due to review the issue.

A Cypriot veto could also keep out other EU hopefuls, including Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Balkans despite criticism those countries aren’t ready and with the EU unable to rein in corruption in Bulgaria, Romania and Malta and Slovakia, where investigative journalists looking into government wrongdoing were murdered.

The current language of the draft ministerial statement says Turkey “continues to move further away from the European Union” and calls on Turkey to stop “illegal” drilling, the kind of language Erdogan has rejected and dismissed out of hand.

The unnamed diplomats said Cyprus wants Turkey told that 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 temporarily halted Turkey’s membership bid over Erdogan’s sweeping crackdown on critics following a failed 2016 coup but said he would release refugees and migrants on Greek islands unless he gets his way.