EU condemns Turkish “illegal” aggression ahead of bilateral summit

The European Council has “strongly condemned” Turkey’s “illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea” after a meeting last Thursday.

The council, which defines the European Union’s political direction, addressed issues related to Turkey’s rising tensions with its neighbours in Greece and Cyprus in five out of 16 of the meeting’s published conclusions.

Tensions over the Aegean Sea have come to a boil since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested last December, during a visit to Athens, that the treaty of Lausanne, which defined Turkish and Greek borders and rights to Aegean islands, should be “updated.”

The statement has led to rhetoric from Turkish politicians around taking action to recover Aegean islands “occupied” by Greece, and to a marked increase in military activity on and above the sea.

The arrest by Turkey of two Greek soldiers who reportedly strayed across the border during bad weather has further deepened the rift between the countries. Turkey has refused to release the soldiers, who it says will be charged with espionage, prompting the Greek defence minister to comment the pair were being held as “hostages.”

The European Council expressed “grave concern” at the soldiers’ detention, as well as other EU citizens detained in the country, and demanded that Turkey engage in dialogue with EU member states for a “swift and positive” resolution.

Turkey has also responded aggressively to attempts by EU-member state the Republic of Cyprus to conduct gas exploration around the island. Ankara, which does not recognise the Greek Cypriot republic, argues that the exploitation of the island’s potentially huge gas resources would infringe on the rights of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a state that is only recognised by Turkey.

“(T)he European Council urgently calls on Turkey to cease these actions and respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus to explore and exploit its natural resources in accordance with EU and International Law,” the statement after Thursday’s council meeting read.

The statement comes ahead of the high-level Mar. 28 summit in Varna, which will bring together Turkish and EU leaders including Erdoğan, European Council President Donald Tusk, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The EU leaders’ comments ahead of the Varna summit in one sense reflect the extent that EU-Turkey relations have degraded; while Turkey is still formally a candidate for EU accession, the leaders expressed doubts over whether the two sides can even achieve effective communication.

Juncker spoke of his “mixed feelings” ahead of the meeting, due to the rising number of problems between the EU and Turkey, but stressed that the EU was still willing to strengthen cooperation.

Tusk said he expected the meeting to be a difficult one, due to “complicated issues … including developments in Turkey and its actions in Syria.”

“Still, we are neighbours and we need to find a way to talk to each other openly and cooperate in areas of common interest,” he said.