As the Greek, Cypriot and Turkish dispute on the status of the islands and the maritime boundaries among the three countries continues, EU Foreign Ministers held a Gymnich meeting on Friday August 28 to discuss possible sanctions against Turkey.
The meeting was an informal summit to discuss about potential action against Turkey, in case the negotiations between Ankara and the EU for a peaceful solution with Athens and Nicosia reach a dead end.
Borrell’s Statements on the Conclusions of the Meeting
Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security, provided a Press Conference shortly after the end of the meeting, summarizing the key points that were discussed among the participating Member States.
Firstly, Borrell made clear that the primary target of the participants is always the promotion of European interests, and in this respect, he expressed general solidarity with Cyprus and Greece. Also, Turkey has been advised to abstain from any unilateral action, so the appropriate climate for a productive dialogue could be achieved.
The EU High Representative carefully prepared his statements, avoiding any provoking announcements or direct threats towards Ankara. Borrell mainly focused on the mutual interests between the EU and Turkey and he highlighted that both parties should walk the “fine line” that would be beneficial for everyone involved.
In his brief statement he repeatedly mentioned the words dialogue and negotiations, indicating that first and foremost the EU is seeking deescalation through means of cooperation, and the scenario of imposing sanctions on Turkey should only be seen as a last resort.
Proposed Measures and Sanctions Against Turkey
If a compromise is not timely in a timely manner, then the European Union would be ready to expand a list with individuals and private entities, that are involved in the disputed Turkish drilling in Greek and Cypriot maritime zones. If these measures prove to be inadequate, then the European Council will possibly take further collective action which will be discussed on September 24 and 25.
Borrell clarified that the EU countermeasures would adopt an escalating and proportionate approach. For the time being only individuals, involved in the illegal drilling activities constitute the list of potential sanction targets. In later phases this could be also applied to vessels and shipping companies. The regime of economic sanctions and exclusion from corporate activities could also be extended to a ban for Turkish entities on using European ports, facilities, and technology.
The EU High Representative also stated that priority will be given to the dispute over the drilling activities across the Eastern Mediterranean and the presence of Turkish vessels within Greek or Cypriot maritime zones, as those issues entail a constant danger for the peace and security in the region.
It should be mentioned here that the EU officials seem ready to discuss additional issues with Turkey as part of the proposed negotiations at a later point, even though Greece has insisted that the talks should only focus on the disputes around the maritime rights, the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the countries involved.
Lessons from the Past: Lukewarm EU Sanctions Against Turkey
The rising discord in the Aegean Sea since late July 2020, is not the only example of the regional Turkish aggressiveness in the recent past.
By July 2019, the European Union has repeatedly urged Turkey to cease immediately at least two illegal drilling operations west and northeast of Cyprus, but Ankara kept showing no intention of compliance. The unauthorized drilling activity has been taking place not only in the country’s internationally recognized and clearly defined EEZ but also in the immediate proximity of the Cypriot territorial waters – occasionally overlapping them.
In response the European Council decided to proceed with a number of restrictive measures against Turkey; among others, the negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement stopped, blocking an important step for Turkish aviation, since a possible agreement could bring billions of euros as revenue for the Turkish air transports, enhance the connectivity between Turkey and major European destinations, and significantly decrease the price of the air tickets.
Financial assistance to Turkey for 2020 would also be decreased while the European Investment Bank was advised to limit its loaning in-country activities. In addition an asset freeze and a travel ban have been imposed on two individuals that were directly involved in the unlawful drilling process.
Turkey Has Violated the Sovereign Rights of an EU Member State
As mentioned above, Turkey has openly violated the sovereign rights of an EU member state, and constantly ignored the European calls to stop the provocations and join the negotiating table. The European Institutions decided to response in a very mild way, that barely affected Ankara.
The sanctions imposed in 2019 showcased that Europe had no real intention to send a decisive message in order to block the Turkish aggressive agenda, and the whole process has been actually aiming to mitigate the political reactions of certain member states.
European Institutions have proved that sanctions can work as a great means of pressure in the field of international politics. For instance back in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the EU adopted a set of aggressive sanctions against Moscow, from targeting hundreds of key individuals through asset freezing and travel bans, to significantly restricting the bilateral trade relations in numerous sectors, that have been vital for the Russian economy.
This action led to the rapid deprecation of the rubble and a significant financial crisis across the Russian Federation. It should be highlighted that Ukraine is not an EU member state.
The example of the 2019 measures combined with the current EU rhetoric towards Turkey clearly indicate that the sanctions under discussion will not be too harsh and Ankara would easily handle them.
We will have a more solid picture by late September once the Special European Council has been completed; if a solution has not been reached by then, the most probable scenario is that Turkey will keep pushing its current claims without changing anything in their practices, and the response from the European Union will be nothing more than a symbolic one.