European Union struggles to manage Turkey spat as leaders meet

(This story was updated with comments from former Greek PM in the final three paragraphs)

The European Union’s leaders met in Brussels for a two-day summit on Thursday with differences over how to manage a dispute between Turkey and members Greece and Cyprus top of the agenda.

The Special European Council, which convened on Thursday afternoon, comes amid divisions in the 27-member bloc about how to deal with Turkey and its insistence on exploring for hydrocarbons in waters off Cyprus and Greece.

Cyprus has pushed for economic sanctions against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government and has blocked similar measures against Belarus until those against Ankara are agreed. Germany is among EU countries urging for negotiations to be given a chance – Greece and Turkey have agreed to exploratory talks to de-escalate military tensions.

President of the European Council Charles Michel met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mytsotakis on Thursday, immediately prior to the summit. He also held talks with the heads of the governments of Austria, Spain, Croatia and Portugal.

Member states broadly agree on the aim of the EU's Turkey policy, but disagree on the best way to achieve this, Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said ahead of the meetings.

“Ultimately, a durable de-escalation of tension in the eastern Mediterranean and improvement in EU-Turkey relations depends on whether the Turkish government thinks it can gain more from confrontation or improving relations with Europe,” Scazzieri said in an analysis for the London School of Economics.

The EU’s leaders have failed to agree on a draft resolution on Turkey ahead of the summit due to the Cypriot government’s insistence on sanctions. Cyprus points to an August accord to approve sanctions against Turkey and Belarus together, saying that both carry equal importance. France has also pushed for a tough stance on Turkey.

“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, according to Reuters.

Turkey has sought to push its agenda for closer ties with the EU, rather than confrontation, in statements over the past week.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said his government expects concrete steps to be taken on updating a 2016 migrant deal and a customs union with the bloc. The EU should also meet its promises on visa liberalisation, he said in an interview with the state-run Anadolu news agency.

There was a "positive atmosphere" for discussions with the Greek government, Çavuşoğlu said, adding that a regional conference on the East Mediterranean could also be called to aid a solution.

Turkey argues that the EU is unjustly siding with Cyprus and Greece in the dispute, pointing to its right to explore for hydrocarbons off Cyprus on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot north of the divided island and also in waters just off its coastline, where several Greek islands are also located.

Former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said it would be a grave mistake for the EU to base its approach towards Turkey solely on fragile prospects for Turkish-Greek dialogue. 

The negotiations can only be sustainable if they are firmly based on the revitalisation of previous EU-Turkey exploratory talks on territorial zones in the Eastern Mediterranean, Tsipras said in letter to EU socialist leaders, according to Euractiv.

The EU's position should also be strengthened by both incentives such as the prospect of the modernisation of the customs union with Turkey and a sanctions mechanism should Ankara again violate the sovereign rights of EU nations, he said.