Turkey faces EU sanctions by year-end unless East Med 'provocations' stop

(Updates with comments from Merkel, Mitsotakis)

The European Union’s political leaders vowed to decide on sanctions against Turkey by the end of the year should it persist with “provocations” in the eastern Mediterranean.

The EU took the decision at a summit in Brussels on Friday in a compromise deal with Cyprus, which dropped a veto on similar measures against Belarus.

“The EU issues a clear threat of sanctions against Turkey should it continue to violate international law,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in a statement on Twitter following the decision.

Turkey has sent survey ships escorted by its navy into contested waters near Greek islands and Cyprus to explore for hydrocarbons, sparking military tensions with neighbouring Greece and reprimands from the EU and the United States. The Turkish government maintains its actions are legal, saying the ships have not strayed from its continental shelf.

No automatic trigger for possible sanctions was adopted. Instead, Turkey’s behaviour would be reviewed at an EU summit in December and measures would be imposed should it provoke tensions again, according to the decision.

"In case of renewed unilateral actions or provocations in breach of international law, the EU will use all the instruments and the options at its disposal," the leaders said in a statement.

European Council President Charles Michel said the EU’s decision amounted to a “double strategy”, offering Turkey improved ties on trade and other matters but at the same time threating sanctions should it fail to de-escalate tensions.

Turkey has withdrawn its survey ships from the contested areas and will start negotiations with Greece on resolving the standoff. NATO said this week the two sides had agreed on a framework for the talks.

“It was the most that (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel would bear,” an unnamed EU diplomat told Reuters. “She felt the Union should give Turkey a chance for another few weeks. But Turkey has been put on notice and the ball is in its court.”

The EU wants constructive ties to Turkey, while protecting the rights of bloc members, Merkel told reporters after the summit. Member states agreeing on sanctions “is an important signal because it strengthens the hand of those who are protesting for freedom of opinion in Belarus,” Reuters cited Merkel as saying.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters that Greece was “absolutely satisfied with the conclusions of the summit,” and said the EU would “use all the tools at its disposal to defend its interests,” Greek daily Kathimerini reported.

Turkey would be even more determined to protect its territorial rights in the eastern Mediterranean should the European Union impose sanctions, a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official had said ahead of Friday’s decision, according to Reuters.