EU leaders meet for an extraordinary in-person summit in Brussels on Thursday (1 October) in an attempt to break the deadlock over imposing sanctions on Belarus and resolving a standoff with Turkey, both crucial for the EU’s credibility on the international scene.
The biggest challenge is the bloc’s own unanimity rule, which has made it difficult to reach decisions among the 27 member states on Belarus and Turkey in the past month, exposing once again the shortcomings of EU foreign policymaking.
In his invitation letter, European Council President Charles Michel said talks will cover relations with Turkey and tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, EU-China relations, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Belarus and the recent escalation in Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, EU officials expect a late night, with the official dinner dominated by tricky ties with Ankara and the dangerous stand-off with Greece and Cyprus over maritime borders and energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
After Turkey sent research ships with naval escorts into contested waters, Athens responded with war games backed by France, raising fears of a full-blown conflict.
Although tensions have eased slightly, with both countries agreeing to resume long-stalled talks, also under NATO auspices, Turkey still has warships in Cypriot waters.
All options remain on the table if Ankara does not engage constructively in talks, said Michel, which also could include economic sanctions as EU foreign ministers agreed in their August meeting.
But EU diplomats stress that while the bloc stands in solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, the focus, for now, is trying to find a diplomatic solution.
Sanctions on Turkey put on hold
According to sources, EU leaders are not going to approve sanctions or any mechanism of automatic sanctions that would be activated in case Ankara escalates again.
An EU official said the leaders will emphasise the need for “sustainable” and “continued” de-escalation giving simultaneously room for dialogue.
“De-escalation should be sustainable, meaning avoiding having fresh provocations in a few days,” the official said.
At the same time, however, the Europeans will warn Turkey that it will suffer consequences if it does not comply. The official said the list of sanctions presented by EU diplomacy chief Josep Borrell at a foreign ministers’ meeting last August will provide the “general approach” but is “not the only point of reference”.
Draft conclusions for Turkey are only expected on Friday, after bilateral contacts that Michel will have with several leaders including the Greek and Cypriot ones.
EURACTIV was also informed that there was a proposal not to have Turkey in the conclusions at all, but instead a separate statement by Michel, but that did not work out.
Eyeing Ankara, EU leaders are also expected to condemn the interference of third parties in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, Slovenia, Greece, Cyprus and France raised the issue, EURACTIV has learnt.
Unblocking Belarus sanctions
“The intention is to find a solution both on Turkey and Belarus and to find a consensus,” a senior EU diplomat said.
“It is important we agree on something sustainable, we are not putting any mechanism in place that is unsustainable,” the same source said, adding that “the EU tries to engage in a positive dynamic, but if no progress is made it will have to go an alternative path”.
The main challenge will be to handle Cyprus, which is criticised for ‘holding hostage’ the approval of sanctions the EU wants to impose on Belarus in response to a rigged election in August and the crackdown on peaceful protests. Cyprus has refused to endorse it unless there are also sanctions against Ankara.
EU leaders, including Athens, say Turkey and Belarus cases should be separated. However, a meeting of EU foreign ministers last week failed to break the deadlock.
“We expect that it will be the tipping point for the decision on sanctions against Belarus authorities,” Lithuania’s President, Gitanas Nauseda, said ahead of the summit. Vilnius is currently hosting Belarus’ main opposition leader in exile, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
EU officials have drawn up a list of 40 Belarus officials seen as responsible for post-election repression, but whether President Alexander Lukashenko is put on the list, as Canada and Britain have already done, is still unclear.
In the case of Greece, Turkey has removed its warships from Greek waters, which Brussels took as a good sign. But in the case of Cyprus, EU officials admit that it is still problematic, considering that Turkish vessels and warships are still in its Exclusive Economic Zone.
A potential solution could involve a promise to Cyprus of tough sanctions on Turkey in the future.
“The idea is to threaten Turkey with retaliatory measures if it continues with drilling and other provocations in Cypriot and Greek waters,” a senior EU diplomat told reporters. “This is meant to offer guarantees to Cyprus and convince Nicosia to lift its veto on Belarus sanctions.”
A proposal by some to circumvent the unanimity problem by simply adding to a previously existing Belarus sanctions list was rejected in Brussels. Switching to a qualified majority does not seem promising either.
“A sudden use of qualified majority voting is not an option,” another EU diplomat said, adding that “there is at least a group of countries” that would not allow a scenario where the bloc’s foreign policy the decisions would be agreed by majority “any time soon”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]