EU eyeing possible sanctions on Turkey over ‘illegal drilling’ in East Med

EPA-EFE/ERDEM SAHIN

The Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz (L) leaves from Dilovasi port as a Turkish military ship accompanies it, in Kocaeli, Turkey, 20 June 2019.

The EU has only soft power that can be very effective towards Turkey if the former decides to use economic tools, Filis tells NE.


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EU leaders condemned late on 20 June “Turkey’s continued illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea,” saying the European Union would now consider what measures to take in response, a move that opens that way for imposing sanctions on Turkey.

The European Council in a statement expressed serious concerns over Turkey’s “current illegal drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean” and deplored that Ankara has not yet responded to the EU’s repeated calls to cease such activities.

Underlining the serious immediate negative impact that such illegal actions have across the range of EU-Turkey relations, the Council called on Turkey to show restraint, respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus and refrain from any such actions.

The European Council upgraded its diplomatic response from the previous conclusions, including of 22 March 2018, calling on the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to submit options for “appropriate” and “targeted” measures without delay.

Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company CEO Charles Ellinas told New Europe on 20 June the EU Council declaration was strong but it will not deter Turkey. “Turkey appears to be determined to pursue its plans and create facts on the ground – or in the case the sea. International condemnation alone does not appear to have any impact,” Ellinas said, adding that only serious sanctions could possibly have an effect but this does not appear to be likely.

The Council said the EU would continue to closely monitor developments and stands ready to respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus.

Constantinos Filis, director of research at Institute of International Relations, told New Europe on 20 June that the EU has only soft power that can be very effective towards Turkey if the former decides to use economic tools. “If discussions concerning the Customs Union freeze and sanctions are imposed to Turkey, this will be a major blow to Ankara. And the economic means of a Union, which covers around 65% of Turkey’s foreign direct investment, can be really influential. But we are not yet there,” he said.

Some EU member states, Filis said, are skeptical on whether tough measures will serve the purpose or could further marginalise Turkey from the EU. “But provided that Ankara continues defying the EU and international law by following an assertive and provocative policy against Cyprus, Brussels will sooner or later take the step further,” Filis said, stressing that particularly given that the political environment after the recent European elections is certainly not in favour of countries like Turkey.

Turkey said on 20 June the second drill ship Yavuz will operate in a borehole near Cyprus’ Karpas peninsula, to the northeast of the island.

Filis said he does not expect Turkey’s to impact Cyprus’ drilling activities for the time being. “Of course, this is the ultimate goal of Turkey: to terminate or at least pause Cyprus’ drilling activities,” he said.

Filis noted, however, that realistically, Turkey can only focus on Blocks 2, 3, 8 and 9 because it has confidence that it can repeat the “success” of preventing a drilling, similar to the case with Italy’s ENI last year and ENI and Korea’s KOGAS are the only involved companies. According to Filis, Ankara might think that it can manipulate ENI and KOGAS more effectively than France’s Total or US energy giant Exxon-Mobil.

“But at the same time, Ankara cannot continue for long this policy of a regional spoiler and will have to adapt to regional realities sooner or later. But by putting pressure to Nicosia, it hopes that it will force it to compromise on terms that will be dictated by Turkey,” Filis said.

Ellinas agreed that Turkey’s actions by itself would not have any direct impact on the plans by the oil companies to drill in the licensed blocks in Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 2020-21. “But given that Turkey has been escalating its actions around Cyprus, it may still interfere by declaring NAVETXs and by harassing supply ships. There is always a risk that if drilling extends into blocks claimed by Turkey or the Turkish Cypriots there could be repetition of the intervention by the Turkish navy that stopped drilling in Cyprus’ Block 3 in February next year,” he said.

Finally, Ellinas insisted that there has to be progress leading to solution of the Cyprus problem. “This needs to happen first, so that it can open the way to agree how to share potential benefits from the exploitation of discovered hydrocarbons,” Ellinas said, noting that Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said as much recently when he said ahead of the departure of Turkey’s second drilling vessel that Turkey “won’t have any trouble sharing the wealth” in the East Med. Otherwise, and without sanctions, Ellinas said, “Turkey is likely to carry on doing what it does now and possibly escalate tension further.”

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