Cyprus came under enormous pressure from its EU partners at a summit on Thursday that looked set to go well into the evening, to drop its demand for sanctions on Turkey in return for a quid pro quo vote on Belarus sought by the majority of member states.
It was clear early in the day ahead of the European Council meeting in Brussels that most of the other 26 member states were not on board with sanctions against Turkey but all were in favour of imposing sanctions on Belarus with Cyprus the only holdout.
Draft conclusions prepared for the summit that were alluded to in Reuters reports, said EU leaders condemned unacceptable violence against peaceful protesters in Belarus and did not recognise the election results. It added that “restrictive measures” should be imposed without delay.
The draft summit conclusions had no agreed line on Turkey as Germany did not want to disrupt separate talks between Ankara and Athens, also over oil and gas drilling, by imposing EU sanctions.
Germany has pushed back against the imposition of EU sanctions on Turkey, fearing it will disrupt efforts to cool tensions with Greece.
Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed she was “committed to finding a peaceful solution”, while French President Emmanuel Macron said EU solidarity with Cyprus was “non-negotiable”. But neither of the EU’s two most powerful leaders suggested a way out of the impasse.
Weakened in foreign policy by Britain’s exit last January from the EU, the bloc is being pulled in different directions by France’s tough stance on Turkey and Germany’s push for dialogue.
Merkel, arriving at the summit highlighted the importance of the EU-Turkey relationship. “Our relationship with Turkey is of course complex and the EU is very interested in developing a constructive relationship with Turkey despite all the difficulties,” she told reporters. “We are allies in Nato. We are dependent on each other in terms of immigration policy, and of course, we need to eliminate tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. For me, diplomacy plays an excellent role in this context.”
EU diplomats indicated the best Cyprus could hope for from the summit would be a promise for tough sanctions on Turkey in the future, something he bloc has done repeatedly when it comes to dealing with Ankara.
Despite friendly elbow bumps as the meeting got under way in Brussels, leaders wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic were set from the get-go to confront Cyprus to break the paralysis on Belarus sanctions.
Wearing a face mask with a logo of the island embroidered in gold, President Nicos Anastasiades did not stop to speak to reporters on arrival in Brussels, but won public support from Austria, which chided fellow leaders for not supporting Nicosia.
“The European Union finally has to show (Turkish) President (Tayyip) Erdogan where our red lines are,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “This means the termination of enlargement talks, and sanctions.”
Amid the activity in Brussels, it was announced that Greece and Turkey had set up a mechanism to avoid accidental clashes in the Eastern Mediterranean, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, as part of efforts to defuse a dispute over energy resources in the region.
Stoltenberg said the agreement between Turkey and Greece included a hotline to avoid accidents in the sea and air.
“I welcome the establishment of a military de-confliction mechanism, achieved through the constructive engagement of Greece and Turkey,” he said in a statement.
“This safety mechanism can help to create the space for diplomatic efforts to address the underlying dispute and we stand ready to develop it further.”
Earlier Thursday, in a message marking Cyprus’ 60th anniversary of independence from Britain Anastasiades was defiant, accusing Turkey of “gunboat diplomacy” and violating its maritime shelf in a search for hydrocarbons.
“What I expect from the European Council summit is a more concrete and effective stance, to end this gunboat diplomacy,” he said.
Cyprus told its partners it could not support the proposed sanctions against Belarus officials unless action was taken in parallel against Turkey over energy resources that has raised tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
It says the EU must first agree to impose sanctions on Turkey to send a message that Ankara’s oil and gas exploration along the coast of the island is unacceptable. Turkey began drilling for oil and gas near Cyprus last year despite warnings from Brussels, and fears of a military escalation mounted over the summer after Greece and Turkey held naval drills in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meanwhile sent a letter to all EU leaders except Greece and Cyprus, lobbying for the bloc to treat Ankara fairly and blaming Athens and Nicosia for the tensions in the contested waters of the Mediterranean.
A senior Cypriot diplomat told Reuters early in the day that the summit was headed for an impasse if the EU did not send a message to Turkey that Ankara’s oil and gas exploration along the coast of the Mediterranean island is unacceptable.
“To release the Belarus file we have to have an agreement on our proposals as well,” the diplomat said.
“I imagine there will be a long discussion in the European Council (summit). I’m not excluding that something might come out of it but, as of now, I wouldn’t put money on having a happy outcome.”
The Cypriot diplomat rejected criticism from some EU member states that Cyprus’ veto on the Belarus sanctions was undermining the credibility of the bloc to take foreign policy action in its backyard, pointing out that Turkey is the EU’s backyard too.
He said that for Cypriots this was “a national issue” and so “if we have to be alone we have to be alone”.
“The (Cypriot) president is between a rock and a hard place in the sense that even the opposition said that the move on Belarus was good. So he cannot go back home having released the Belarus file without having anything tangible to show for that.”
“There’s a great deal of political activity at the highest levels…to try and unblock the situation on sanctions against Belarus,” a senior EU diplomat said.