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No Sanctions: EU Sidelines Greece, Cyprus, Offers Turkey Incentives

Αssociated Press

European Council President Charles Michel talks during a video conference with the leaders of Germany, France, Portugal and Greece ahead of the EU summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool)

BRUSSELS -- Setting aside talk of sanctions for a third time, European Union leaders instead offered Turkey incentives for not invading waters around Greek islands to drill for energy but said penalties might someday be thought of if there are violations.

This time, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis - who in October 2020 called for penalties for Turkish provocations - backed off and went along with an EU report that pushed a “positive agenda” - as did Cyprus, where Turkey is already drilling for oil and gas offshore.

European Council President Charles Michel, representing the 27 heads of state for the bloc, defended the lenient dual approach of offering Turkey rewards mixed with a warning that sanctions were still on, if not under, the table.

He said Turkey, which pulled an energy research vessel and warship off the Greek island of Kastellorizo - but said it would return - should stick to what he called its “moderate behavior,” the EU backing off going tough again.

“We really hope it will be possible to improve the relationship with Turkey, but at the same time … for us it is important that Turkey keep a positive behavior, a moderate behavior,” said Kathimerini.

“But we remain cautious and we remain careful, and indeed we are in contact with the Turkish authorities in order to pay a visit probably in April to Turkey,” he said after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan again made the EU back away from penalties he said he would have ignored anyway.

Greek government not identified by the paper insisted that the EU is not giving Turkey a “blank check” for not misbehaving although the same diplomatic approach being tried again has repeatedly failed and emboldened Erdogan.

That came a day after Greek officials said they were unhappy that the bloc was further diluting a report on Turkey by EU foreign chief Josep Borrell that was already said to be too soft.

The sources said Mitsotakis was pleased that Turkey has been only called upon - not forced - to stop provocations and must respect international laws it doesn't recognize.

Turkey “will have to show consistency and continuity and will continue to be evaluated,” and any decisions will be referred to the European Council in June, they noted, although Turkey has consistently and continually offered defiance.

EU diplomats said before the videoconference summit that the leaders would offer Turkey a “positive agenda” rather than brandish threats or sanctions without explaining why.

The aim is take advantage of a lull in tensions between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey and to avoid any hostile acts that could undermine a new peace effort for divided Cyprus, it was said.

What wasn't said is that Germany, home to 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage and a major provider of arms to Turkey that could be used against Greece, won't allow sanctions, nor will other EU countries who have trade deals.

Erdogan has also threatened to flood the EU, through Greece and its islands, with more refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their countries.

Under an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU, Turkey is supposed to contain some 4.4 million of them but has repeatedly let human traffickers send them to Greece, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Αssociated Press

European Council President Charles Michel speaks with EU leaders, via videoconference link, during a EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP)

USING KID GLOVES

The EU had provided Turkey with 3 billion euros ($3.54 billion) but has withheld 3 billion euros more, which Erdogan wants, along with visa-free travel for Turks bloc and a faster-track entry into the bloc Turkey has been trying to join since 2005.

It wasn't said if he got that although it reportedly was among the incentives to keep Turkey from further provocations although the EU also didn't denounce Turkey for violations of the swap deal nor for reopening a beachfront on the closed resort of Varosha on the side of Cyprus occupied by Turkey since 1974.

“The EU has parked sanctions in the drawer for now. But, on the flip side, the bloc might not have much to offer Turkey in the way of carrots,” said Alissa de Carbonnel at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

Borrell, who has submitted a report to the leaders on EU-Turkey ties, said earlier that the agreement should “be the key framework for cooperation on migration,” which hasn't happened.

For Borrell, the deal saved lives, stopped most people from trying to cross the Aegean Sea to Greek islands like Lesbos and Samos, and improved life for refugees in Turkey.

But for aid groups, it created open-air prisons where thousands have languished in squalid conditions on the islands while others were blocked in Turkey.

The agreement ground to a standstill a year ago as the coronavirus spread and after Turkey allowed thousands of migrants to leave, sparking clashes at the Greek border.

Still, in December, the EU extended two programs for Syrian refugees in Turkey worth almost half a billion euros (nearly $600 million), spending that will flow into Turkey's beleaguered economy.

The leaders were supposed to also okay an updated customs agreement between the EU and Turkey, which removed duties on most Turkish goods and produce entering the 27-nation bloc.

In a draft summit statement seen by The Associated Press, the leaders said if the conciliatory line continued that, “The European Union is ready to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner to enhance cooperation.”

This includes “a mandate for the modernization” of the customs union, the future launch of “high level dialogues” on issues like the coronavirus, climate change, counter-terrorism and regional issues, and strengthened cooperation “on people-to-people contacts and mobility.”

They also invited the EU's executive body, the European Commission, to explore ways to continue to help finance the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon. However, the text of the draft could well change.

Despite the offers, EU leaders worry that this might only be a moment of calm manufactured by Turkey to suit its interests and concerns about rights abuses continue to mount.

Erdogan just ended his nation's participation in the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention aimed at preventing violence against women. The move was a blow to Turkey's women's rights movement, which says domestic violence and femicide are on the rise.

The EU also criticized Turkish authorities last week for stripping a prominent pro-Kurdish legislator of his parliamentary seat and seeking to shut down his political party.

Despite all that, and Erdogan jailing journalists by the dozen, his strong-handed approach pushed the EU back and Turkey faced no penalties for anything, with Greece said to have accepted that in the report too.

As for Cyprus, the UN is hosting informal talks April 27-29 in Geneva between the rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides as well as the island's “guarantors” — Greece, Turkey and former colonial ruler Britain — to gauge chances of resuming peace talks, which hasn't worked for decades.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)