BRUSSELS — European Union leaders – after warning in October they would get tough in December if Turkey didn't pull out of drilling off Cyprus and plans to hunt for energy off Greek islands – pulled back at a critical meeting and said they would get tough in March instead – if needed.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who had pulled back his demand for sanctions in October to give diplomacy a chance, wanted them imposed after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent an energy research vessel and warships off the island of Kastellorizo.
Erdogan pulled them out again just before the EU meeting but Greece warned it was a ruse to buy time and stave off penalties, a tactic he used successfully in October, the bloc's leaders reluctant to provoke him because of trade ties.
Germany, which holds the EU's rotating symbolic presidency, is home to 2.74 million people of Turkish heritage and a major arms seller to Turkey, wouldn't back sanctions, nor would Spain, which has big economic links there.
Erdogan also has threatened to unleash on the EU, through Greece and its islands, more refugees and migrants who went to Turkey fleeing war and strife and economic hardships in their homelands.
Before the meeting he dismissed the idea of sanctions out of hand as meaningless and that they would – if imposed – not stop his plans for drilling, and even as the EU leaders talked, said his ships would resume operations.
The EU leaders only agreed to a statement that said they would take up talk of sanctions in March for the unlawful drilling off Cyprus and wouldn't even take up what was happening in Greek waters, said Reuters, frustrating Mitsotakis.
The news agency had reported before the meeting that sanctions would be on the table but the meeting resulted only in freezing assets of some Turkish offiials who were not named, adding to two executives of the state-run petroleum company for the drilling off Cyprus.
“It is very clear what is at stake here: the credibility of the European Union,” Mitsotakis said in a video message before the summit discussion, which one diplomat described as a “heated debate.”
The EU also didn't want to stir the waters with Turkey because it's a member of NATO, but had kept violating Greek airspace and waters with impunity – Greece belongs to the alliance as well.
Erdogan, earlier snubbing his nose at NATO and the EU, also bought Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems that undermine the defense alliance's capabilities and could be used against Greece in a conflict.
A diplomat not identified told Reuters that the meeting, while intense, was essentially a pointless debate of “long discussions about words,” being careful not to antagonize Erdogan, who has seemed above the fray and uncaring.
In their statement, which softened criticism of Turkey in early drafts seen by Reuters, EU leaders told officials “to adopt additional listings … in view of Turkey’s unauthorized drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Turkey doesn't recognize parts of Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and has claimed Greek waters under a maritime deal with Libya that no other country recognizes, Greece countering with a similar agreement with Egypt that led Erdogan to call off earlier planned talks set for Ankara – not Athens.
While the EU pulled back again, the United States is set to sanction Turkey for buying the Russian missile defenses and even President Donald Trump, who said Erdogan is a friend, had enough of that and said he wouldn't block them.