EU agrees on sanctions for Turkey’s gas drilling in East Med

(This story has been updated with French President Emmanuel Macron’s comment on ninth paragraph; Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ comments from paragraph 17; and Turkish Foreign Ministry comment from paragraph 19.)

European Union leaders agreed on Friday to impose sanctions on further individuals involved in Turkey’s drilling activities in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean, but stopped short of targeting the Turkish economy directly.

An EU blacklist freezing the assets and limiting the travel of the individuals is set to be enlarged under the new measures. The list currently consists of two members of the Turkish Petroleum Corp. (TPAO) but could now go on to include companies and government organisations, Bloomberg reported.

Greece and Cyprus have been pushing for tougher EU action in their ongoing political and military standoff with Turkey over natural gas reserves recently discovered in the Mediterranean basin.

However, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV news agency that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov blocked a Greek proposal for sectoral sanctions on key parts of the Turkish economy.

“Bulgaria’s leader Borissov is a known friend of Erdoğan and his behaviour is unpredictable,” an EU diplomat told EURACTIV.

Both Borissov and Merkel are affiliated to the European People’s Party, a centre-right coalition in the European Parliament.

Spain, Italy, Malta and Hungary were also against the move, while France took a more lenient position than expected, EURACTIV reported.

France had been expected to press for tougher sanctions after providing vocal political support against Turkey’s activities in the eastern Mediterranean and conducting military exercises with Cyprus and Greece in the area. Turkey and France have also locked horns on a range of issues including the conflict in Libya and the role of Islam in modern societies.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday the new measures showed the EU would no longer accept Turkey’s destabilising actions, Reuters reported.

Turkish research vessels have repeatedly conducted surveying operations for hydrocarbons off the coast of Cyprus and several Greek islands, which Athens and Nicosia say violate their continental shelves.

Turkey refuses to recognise the United Nations convention governing maritime borders, which it maintains unfairly limits its access to the eastern Mediterranean.

“The EU remains committed to defending its interests and those of its member states as well as to upholding regional stability,” the European Council, made up of the 27-member bloc's heads of state, said in a statement following a meeting in Brussels.

Turkey may soon be facing two separate sets of Western sanctions. Officials close to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden have indicated that he would take a tougher stance than his predecessor Donald Trump towards Turkey. The U.S. Congress is calling for sanctions against Ankara for its acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system.

“The EU will seek to coordinate on matters relating to Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean with the United States,” the Council said.

But EU leaders struck a conciliatory tone, emphasising the need to maintain communication channels with Turkey and indicating that the situation would be reviewed again in March.

“The offer of a positive EU-Turkey agenda remains on the table, provided Turkey shows readiness to promote a genuine partnership with the union and its member states and to resolve differences through dialogue and in accordance with international law,” the Council said.

Ahead of the meeting of European leaders, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned that the credibility of the EU was at stake. Athens is likely to be disappointed with the limited scope of sanctions, he said, according to Greek newspaper Kathimerini.

Earlier drafts of the European Council’s statement included harsher criticism of Turkey which were softened following a heated debate, Reuters said.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Friday it rejected the EU’s “biased and unlawful attitude towards Cyprus the eastern Mediterranean and other regional issues”.

“Turkey and the EU have been thrust into a vicious cycle … By some member states abusing membership solidarity and veto rights,” the ministry said in a statement.