BRUSSELS — After repeatedly pleading, urging and demanding that Turkey stop drilling for energy in Cypriot sovereign waters, the European Union said it would break off some low-level talks but steered clear of tougher measures, apparently trying to avoid a head-on confrontation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
EU foreign ministers approved the first penalties that were far less than Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades wanted, the bloc’s leaders needing Turkey for security deals and anxious Erdogan would unleash more refugees and migrants on Greek islands.
Two Turkish ships are in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) where foreign companies licensed by the legitimate government have been looking for oil and gas with the American energy giant ExxonMobil having reported a major gas find.
Erdogan has ignored the EU – although Cyprus is a member and Turkey has been trying to join for 14 years while not recognizing the island’s government and barring its ships and plans. Turkey recognizes only the northern third it seized in an unlawful 1974 invasion.
The United States also supported Cyprus’ rights to license companies in the EEZ but the United Nations – which wants to restart talks to reunify the island – has stayed out of the fray despite a plea from Anastasiades to get involved.
The ministers said in a statement – the usually don’t talk to reporters or give news conferences – because of the “continued and new illegal drilling activities,” they were suspending talks on an air transport agreement and would call on the European Investment Bank to “review” it’s lending to the country.
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.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued his own warning last week that his country would step up drilling activities off Cyprus if the EU moved ahead with sanctions.
The EU ministers repeated the “serious immediate negative impact” that Turkey’s illegal actions are having on EU-Turkey relations and called on Ankara to respect Cyprus’ sovereign rights in line with international law that Turkey doesn’t recognize either.
They also welcomed the Cypriot government’s invitation to Turkey to negotiate the borders of their respective exclusive economic zones and continental shelf, although Cavosoglu said the drilling would go on until the Greek-Cypriot side agreed to a proposal by Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to let both sides share in the licensing.
Turkey claims 44% of Cyprus’ EEZ, according to Cyprus government officials. Turkish Cypriots in the east Mediterranean island nation’s breakaway north claim another 25%, leaving the legitimate government, which should have 100 percent, only 31 percent.
A long line of diplomats has failed to bring the island together despite many rounds of talks in the last 45 years, the last falling apart in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana when Turkey said it would never remove a 35,000-strong island and wanted the right to militarily intervene again.
Turkey contends that it’s protecting its rights and those of Turkish-Cypriots to the area’s hydrocarbon deposits but Cypriot officials accused Turkey of using the minority Turkish- Cypriots to pursue its goal of exerting control over the eastern Mediterranean region.
The Cypriot government says it will take legal action against any oil and gas companies supporting Turkish vessels in any repeat attempt to drill for gas. Cyprus has already issued around 20 international arrest warrants against three international companies assisting one of the two Turkish vessels now drilling 42 miles (68 kilometers) off the island’s west coast but didn’t enforce them.
The Cypriot government has licensed energy companies including ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Italy’s Eni to carry out gas drilling in blocks, or areas, off the island’s southern coastline. At least three significant gas deposits have so far been discovered there.
Anastasiades said he will bring political leaders together July 16 Tuesday to discuss Akinci’s plan to establish a joint committee with Greek-Cypriots on managing offshore gas drilling activities, with Cavusoglu said Anastasiades must give on or the drilling won’t stop.
Akinci has repeatedly called for the creation of such a committee that he says would give his community a say in how newly found gas deposits off Cyprus’ southern coast are managed and future proceeds are divvied up. A similar proposal was made by Akinci’s predecessor Dervis Eroglu in 2011.
The Cypriot government said energy discussions with Turkish-Cypriots should be part of overarching reunification talks, adding that Turkish Cypriot rights to the island’s energy reserves are assured. The government says future gas proceeds that will flow into an established hydrocarbons fund will be shared equitably after a peace deal is signed.
The rising tension had raised fears there could be a military conflict with Greece and Turkey, along with the United Kingdom- the former Colonial ruler that still has military bases on the island – being guarantors of security.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)