EU foreign affairs ministers decided yesterday (13 July) to explore ways of easing tensions with Turkey in the Mediterranean, warning at the same time that Europe will not hesitate to pick the sanctions option if the situation deteriorates.
The ministerial discussion focused on all open fronts between the EU and Turkey, ranging from Turkish illegal drilling activities in the Mediterranean to Ankara’s involvement in Libya and Syria.
The first step will be at a last attempt for dialogue, diplomats said. But if Ankara continues acting in the same way, then Europeans are expected to toughen their stance, despite the fact that EU officials insisted last week that sanctions were not “in principle” on the table.
“We are going to support a path that will contribute to lower tensions. And for sure, drilling in the disputed waters in Greece could be something that will increase tensions,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief who chaired yesterday’s ministerial meeting.
“At the same time, we will prepare options on further appropriate measures that could be taken in response to the challenges that we are facing by result of Turkish actions,” Borrell added.
The EU’s foreign affairs chief is expected to present those measures in August, diplomats said.
Turkey has announced its intention to soon start drilling activities in Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone, so Borrell’s choice of describing the area as “disputed waters” triggered strong reactions in Athens.
EU Spokesperson Peter Stano later clarified that Borrell does not consider the territorial waters of EU member states to be disputed, telling EURACTIV that the term “disputed” is used by Turkey.
Paralysing Turkish economy
Diplomatic sources told EURACTIV yesterday that Athens had called for sanctions that would “paralyse” Turkey’s economy, targeting key areas such as the banking sector.
EU leaders have already decided a framework of sanctions against Turkish individuals and legal entities in the case of Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
However, Athens said if Turkey violates the sovereign rights of Greece then sanctions should hit Turkey’s already fragile economy.
Borrell is expected to present concrete measures in August while an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers will be convened in case of an “incident” between Greece and Turkey during the summer.
In such a scenario, the mutual defence clause (Article 42) of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty will be activated and an extraordinary meeting will be held, diplomats told EURACTIV.
According to the Council Conclusions on Security and Defence last June, EU ministers agreed to continue building a common understanding of Article 42, building on scenario-based policy discussions in the months ahead.
“This may also include an assessment by the relevant services of the type of assistance that they could provide, if so requested by a Member State in the context of an activation of Article 42(7) TEU,” the conclusions read, recalling though that NATO remains the foundation of the collective defence for those states which are members of it.
Unanimity required for sanctions
But unanimity among EU member states is required in order to enforce sanctions and it’s not clear yet whether the numbers add up.
France and Austria have lashed out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime with Vienna even asking to stop immediately Turkey’s EU accession talks.
A French diplomat commented that Europe needs to see what tools it has available, not just economic, to react immediately to Turkey’s provocative actions if necessary.
“Turkey is not an enemy, it is a NATO member, but it creates security issues,” the diplomat said, adding that the necessary unanimity to take action for Turkey will be a major challenge.
Luxembourg and Slovakia took a similar stance while Italy and Germany, which holds the rotating EU Presidency, adopted a softer tone.
Meanwhile, there is disagreement among EU member states over who violates the arms embargo in Libya. While France insisted to explicitly cite Turkey, Germany and Italy wanted a more general wording.
The firm tone in Paris follows an incident in the Eastern Mediterranean in which France said Turkish frigates were “extremely aggressive” towards a French navy vessel participating in a NATO mission in the area.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)