EU countries feel ‘numb’ about Turkey ahead of critical EU summit

EURACTIV was informed that Michel’s initiative for a Multilateral Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean involving all non-EU partners of the region is likely failing. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS]

EU member states cannot find a common ground to respond to an escalating situation with Turkey ahead of a crucial summit later this week, EURACTIV has learnt.

“The feelings in Brussels are numb”, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV on Friday (4 December).

On 10-11 December, EU leaders will meet to discuss again the bloc’s next steps regarding Turkey following a series of disagreements on a number of issues ranging from illegal gas drillings in the Eastern Mediterranean to involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh or Libya, and a recent standoff in the France-Turkey relations.

In theory, the December summit is the deadline set by EU leaders to give Ankara time to de-escalate and move toward a positive agenda with Europe.

“I think that the cat and mouse game needs to end,” EU Council chief Charles Michel said in reply to a question by EURACTIV last Friday.

“We will have a debate at the European summit on 10 December and we are ready to use the means at our disposal”, he said. However, he did not mention the word ‘sanctions’.

The sources admitted that it’s now common knowledge that Turkey has done nothing positive to improve its chances at the summit. However, some EU countries are still cautious to impose sanctions against Ankara.

Michel says Turkey should stop playing ‘cat and mouse’ with EU

Turkey has not de-escalated its stand-off with Greece in response to diplomatic outreach, European Council chief Charles Michel said on Friday (4 December) and warned that EU member states would now consider “the means at our disposal”, which most probably means sanctions.

On 30 November, Turkey’s Oruç Reis survey vessel returned to the southern port of Antalya from Mediterranean waters. The same happened ahead of a previous EU summit in October, when Turkey avoided sanctions and EU leaders decided to revisit the issue in December.

The two fronts

On 25 November, sources close to the issue told EURACTIV that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would back down at first sign of EU unity.

However, achieving EU unity seems to be a long shot.

Led by Germany, a group of countries (Italy, Spain, Malta) invoke a number of arguments against imposing sanctions such as the return of Oruç Reis to Turkey or push for a “wait and see” approach, according to which Europe’s reaction should align with the stance toward Turkey of the new US administration.

In addition, particularly in Berlin, policymakers claim that Turkey’s role in migration should also be taken into account.

Another argument is the role of the bilateral NATO’s deconfliction mechanism introduced on 1 October. In Athens, critics suggest that this mechanism is of low value practically and apparently Greece was under huge political pressure to accept it.

Well-informed sources told EURACTIV that at the last summit, Germany rejected a Greek proposal to impose sanctions the first time Turkey takes a new provocative action.

Instead, Germany invoked NATO’s deconfliction mechanism as an adequate measure in case of a new Greek-Turkish confrontation.

In Madrid, analysts estimate that “Real Politik will prevail”.

“Turkey is one of Spain’s key trade partners. Spain has increased its investments in Turkey from 2012 to 2019 by between 3 and 4% per year. Turkey is one of the main destinations for Spanish exports of automobiles and other metallurgical resources, while Turkey exports a large quantity of textile products to Spain,” sources said.

These countries, according to the sources, would prefer to postpone the thorny issue until the next EU summit in March.

Portugal, which will take over the EU rotating Presidency after Germany, keeps a low profile on the issue. But critics suggest that Lisbon does not want to inherit Turkey’s “hot potato”.

Regarding Bulgaria’s leader Boyko Borissov, who is known as a close friend of Erdoğan, sources said his reaction was unpredictable.

Another group of countries push for a stricter EU stance. Together with Greece and France stand Cyprus, Austria, Slovenia and Slovakia.

Probable scenarios

The sources do not rule out “light sanctions” similar to the ones imposed on Ankara due to its illegal gas drillings off Cyprus.

The best-case scenario according to Athens, would be for EU leaders to give a mandate to EU top diplomat Josep Borrell to come up with a list of “written sanctions” in case Turkey continues escalating.

At a meeting of foreign minister in Berlin last August, Borrell presented some “options” to deal with Turkey. However, these options have only been presented orally and have never been put on a paper.

However, a new written list of sanctions will not be adopted at this summit.

Sources said such a list could be adopted at a foreign affairs meeting in January but it’s highly likely that it will be discussed at the March EU summit. In practice, this will mean granting Ankara another grace period.

Michel’s international conference hits the wall

In addition, sources say diplomatic efforts are currently taking place in order to come up with conclusions on Turkey before the summit, as there are fears that the veto posed by Hungary and Poland on the Recovery Fund and the Brexit deadlock will likely overshadow the discussion over Turkey.

Last but not least, EURACTIV was informed that Michel’s initiative for a Multilateral Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean involving all non-EU partners of the region is apparently failing.

Sources said Egypt, a key player in the region, refuses to sit at the same table with Turkey.

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