EU leaders unblock Belarus sanctions, issue ‘carrot and stick’ warning to Turkey

President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiadis and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during the EU summit on 2 October 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. [European Union]

After weeks of bickering, EU leaders broke a longstanding deadlock to impose sanctions against members of the Belarus regime on Friday night (2 October) and fired a warning at Turkey over its gas drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean.

The biggest challenge at the extraordinary in-person EU summit was the bloc’s own unanimity rule, which had made it difficult to reach decisions among the 27 member states on Belarus and Turkey sanctions in the past month, exposing once again the shortcomings of EU foreign policymaking.

The first day of summit talks was dominated by the EU’s ties with Ankara, entangled in a dangerous stand-off with Greece and Cyprus over maritime borders and energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sanctions against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime had been blocked by Cyprus, which wanted measures to be imposed on Turkey for its energy explorations in Cypriot and Greek waters.

Cyprus blocks EU's Belarus sanctions plan

Plans by the European Union to slap sanctions on Belarus have fallen into disarray, sources say, a hostage to internal politicking that one EU official described as a threat to the bloc’s credibility.

Negotiations went through three drafts of conclusions as Athens and Nicosia rejected statements on the basis that they contained no prospect of sanctions against Turkey and instead merely expressed “solidarity with Greece and Cyprus.”

In a final summit statement hammered out over more than eight hours, EU leaders agreed on language that warned Ankara could face “immediate” sanctions if it persists with gas exploration in Cypriot waters.

The compromise struck was an agreement to “closely monitor developments”, review Turkey’s behaviour in December and impose sanctions then, possibly including swinging broad-based economic measures, if its “provocations” have not stopped.

Adopting a ‘carrot and stick’-approach, the leaders’ statement offers Ankara the prospect of closer ties and better trade if it commits to “pursuing dialogue in good faith and abstaining from unilateral actions”.

“In case of such renewed actions by Ankara, the EU will use all its instruments and options available. We have a toolbox that we can apply immediately,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after the summit.

“But we are very clear that in the opposite case, we have all necessary tools at our disposal,” von der Leyen said, of which one option is sanctions, but it is not the preferred option, she clarified.

European Council President Charles Michel described it as a “double strategy” towards Ankara.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that for various reasons, there were countries in the EU neighbourhood towards which the EU would be more stringent, and others with which it should show more flexibility.

The final text also stresses that the EU “calls on Turkey to start dialogue aimed at resolving all maritime disputes with Cyprus” and notes that the EU member states “remain fully committed to a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue.”

The agreement came as Turkey-Greece tensions have eased slightly in recent days, as the two sides agreed to resume long-stalled talks and on Thursday set up a technical military hotline at NATO to avoid accidental clashes in the region.

Greece and Germany clash over Turkey

EURACTIV was informed that Greece and Germany had clashed fiercely during the talks.

Germany rejected Greece’s proposal to activate automatic sanctions the first time Turkey takes new provocative action. In addition, Germany cited the NATO de-escalation mechanism, set up on Thursday, as an adequate measure in the event of a new Greek-Turkish confrontation.

“It is clear that if it takes us so many hours to agree on the wording of a text, what will happen if Athens asks for sanctions in December?” a diplomat wondered.

In the case of Greece, Turkey has removed its warships from Greek waters, a move Brussels took as a good sign. But in the case of Cyprus, EU officials admit that the situation is still problematic, considering that Turkish vessels and warships are still in its Exclusive economic zone.

“It is good that there is a credible dialogue between Greece and Turkey, but Ankara has not made any progress with Cyprus,” von der Leyen stated, adding:

“We want a credible relationship with Turkey and this will only happen if the provocative attitudes stop… We want dialogue and work to improve issues such as trade and immigration. We want to build a strong relationship with Turkey,” she said.

However, the final statement falls some way short of the immediate action Nicosia had pushed for ahead of the meeting.

In Ankara, before the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan struck a defiant note, telling his parliament that the EU had made itself a “hostage” of the “spoiled Greeks and the Greek Cypriot administration” and vowed to maintain his “determined approach”.

Belarus sanctions unblocked

The summit conclusions on Turkey were enough to persuade Cyprus to lift the veto on separate, long-delayed sanctions over the political crisis in Belarus, which officials say will now come into effect on later Friday.

The EU is now set to impose asset freezes and travel bans on around 40 members of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime whom it blames for rigging the 9 August election and cracking down on protests afterwards.

But, unlike Britain and Canada, which have already sanctioned Belarus officials, the EU will not be imposing measures on Lukashenko himself, which has been repeatedly asked for by the Belorussian side. As Macron explained, the EU needed an interlocutor, while sanctioning Lukashenko would close the diplomatic track.

“The EU is taking action against those who stand in the way of democracy,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the talks. “I think that is an important signal.”

EU leaders meet to break stalemate over Belarus and Turkey

EU leaders meet physically for an extraordinary 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.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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