ATHENS – After calling off demands for the European Union to sanction Turkey for hunting for oil and gas in Greek waters, the New Democracy government now wants them taken up again at a Dec. 10-11 meeting of bloc leaders, warning against being fooled again.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had withdrawn his call for the sanctions to give diplomacy a chance but once the EU also pulled back Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who had removed an energy research vessel and warships from near the island of Kastellorizo sent them back in again.
Now Greece wants the EU to set limits on Turkey's aggressions, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias told the financial news agency Bloomberg, although Erdogan said the ships would be taken out before the critical meeting.
“Europe cannot pretend that Turkey is acting as an acceptable player in the region,” Dendias said, advising against being snookered by Erdogan's tactics of alternating tough talk with being apparently conciliatory to ward off sanctions.
“Greece expects European Union leaders to make clear that the bloc agrees that Turkish actions in the region are damaging. The EU will need new measures to curb Ankara’s “delinquent and provocative policy,” the minister said.
Turkey has claimed waters around Greek islands under a maritime deal with Libya that no other county recognizes, leading Greece to counter with a similar deal which led an angry Erdogan to call off earlier talks in Ankara.
Since then there's been a tense standstill in the Aegean and East Mediterranean as Turkey, defying soft EU sanctions targeting only two executives of Turkey's state-run petroleum company, continues to drill for oil and gas off Cyprus.
EU leaders in October – when Mitsotakis held off on the sanctions demands he now unless there's a resolution – called on Turkey to stop its energy hunt and follow international laws that Erdogan won't recognize either.
“Certainly we are in a critical moment in our relationship with Turkey,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament in Brussels. “Leaders will have to take a decision” on whether to adopt more sanctions, he said, although they've been reluctant to provoke Erdogan, fearing he will unleash on the bloc through Greece and its islands more refugees and migrants.
Turkey is holding some 4.4 million refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war and strife in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan as well as economic hardships in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions.
Under an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU, Turkey is supposed to contain them but has allowed human traffickers to keep sending more to give Greek islands near Turkey's coast, in lesser numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a non-binding advisory resolution that has no official weight or enforcement power, the European Parliament by a vast majority urged EU leaders “to take action and impose tough sanctions in response to Turkey’s illegal actions,” a vote dismissed by Turkey as meaningless and unfair.
“Europe must show the limits of that behavior,” as it’s against everything the EU stands for, Dendias told Bloomberg in the interview, adding that otherwise, “Turkey will have the impression it can continue its current behavior without any restriction,” being imposed.
Erdogan said he still wants to get Turkey into the EU, a process that began in 2005 and stalled after he purged civil society, the military and judiciary and jailed dozens of journalists after a failed 2016 coup attempt against him.
He said that, Turkey sees itself as “in Europe, not anywhere else, and we want to build our future with Europe,” although support for its bid is faltering although Greece and Cyprus still want Turkey admitted, believing that would curb provocations.
Dendias – doubting Erdogan's word – said that if the Turkish leader is serius that it could mark a difference, calling that “the beginning of a complete change of course for Turkey, no one will be happier than Greece.”
Complicating the dilemma is that some countries, especially Germany – home to 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage and with German companies major arms suppliers to Turkey, including submarines, don't want sanctions.
Dendias said Greece wants Germany and other EU companies that sell arms to Turkey – including France, which is also planning to sell fighter jets and frigates to Greece all while French President Emmanuel Macron and Erdogan are spatting – to stop.
“Germany, as the largest country and economy of the EU, has the checks and balances in place to stop the need to export arms to countries that will turn them against two members of the EU,” Dendias said, referring to Greece and Cyprus.
He said Greece also wants the EU to respect the bloc’s mutual defense clause, which commits members to assist “by all means” if another EU state is a victim of armed aggression with fears of a conflict over the seas disputes.
That is based partly on how to define the boundaries in the waters, with Turkey invoking the UN's Law of the Sea it doesn't recognize and complaining that Greece wrongfully claims that islands must be taken into account in delineating a country’s continental shelf.
Turkey said that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland, and that the area south of Kastellorizo – less than two miles from Turkey's coast – is in Turkey's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ.)
Despite the anxiety, Mitsotakis said he's still willing to talk with Erdogan although official communications have essentially broken off and an attempt by NATO, the defense alliance to which both belong, to bring so-called “deconfliction” measures failed.
Greece also suggested letting the International Court of Justice at The Hague in The Netherlands mediate, which Turkey doesn't want. “If the Turkish side wants to find solutions with Greece, this should be very easy,” Dendias also said. “We have found solutions with all our other neighbors.”