EU sanctions against Turkey expected as tensions mount

Experts predict punitive measures but raise doubts whether these will be tough enough

European Council President Charles Michel gestures as he talks during a press conference marking his first year as President at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, on December 4, 2020. / AFP / POOL / Francisco Seco

Turkey is likely to face moderate sanctions from the EU as it continues its fuel exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The punitive measures expected from EU leaders this week will fall short of trade or financial penalties, analysts say, but will worsen the stand-off that is becoming increasingly fractious.

Tension between Turkey and Greece heightened over the summer when Ankara sent a survey vessel to map out energy drilling prospects in waters also claimed by Athens.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed not to “bow down to threats and blackmail” but repeated his call for negotiations over the conflicting claims to energy resources.

When EU leaders meet on Thursday, it is likely that Germany will be the key player in deciding whether sanctions are imposed.

It had hoped to mediate between Athens and Ankara, but was angered when Turkey resumed its gas exploration off Cyprus in October after a pause.

“There have been too many provocations, and tensions between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece have prevented any direct talks,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday.

“For this reason, we will talk about what consequences we should draw.”

EU leaders told Turkey in October to stop exploring in the disputed Eastern Mediterranean waters or face consequences.

France and the European Parliament, which formally called for sanctions last month, said it was time to punish Turkey.

Brussels considers Ankara to be fuelling the dispute for domestic political reasons.

Even if the EU does impose sanctions, there are doubts that they will be tough enough to force Turkey to change its stance.

“I question that the European Union will impose painful sanctions on Turkey,” said Fadi Hakura, the Turkey specialist for international think tank Chatham House.

“At most, they will merely be slaps on the wrist rather than anything to convince, to persuade Turkey to alter its behaviour.”

Analysts believe that harsh financial penalties would make Turkey change its position because its economy is in severe difficulty.

With more than 45 per cent of Turkey’s trade conducted with the EU, tough export sanctions would strangle its economy.

“They could also put restrictions on European tourists going to Turkey in the summer, with foreign ministries cautioning their citizens not to visit for security reasons,” Mr Hakura said.

He believes that Mr Erdogan is making an issue over the eastern Mediterranean to deflect attention from Turkey’s severe economic and political challenges.

“He's trying to demonstrate that Turkey is indeed an indispensable power in the region.”

Greece said it would not begin formal talks with Turkey over the maritime row while Turkish vessels remain in the contested waters.

The Turkish vessel Oruc Reis  returned to port again last week, helping to calm tensions.

But European Council President Charles Michel warned Turkey not to play “cat and mouse” by returning exploration ships to port just before EU summits, only to send them back out once talks had concluded.

Sanctions could also be part of a bigger issue over European energy, including the oil pipeline from Libya to southern Italy, which would reduce European reliance on the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline, according to Prof Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute.

Prof Clarke believes the dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean is part of the wider negotiation over Europe’s fuel supply, which also involves Turkey.

“I don’t think that the EU will pass tough enough sanctions. It’s a difficult call to make but sanctions could at least make Turkey wake up to what it’s doing," he said.

“The EU sanctions will not be crippling because Turkey and the EU have got lots of other things they want to talk about. It will be steps up in the escalation ladder.

"This issue is all eminently negotiable.

“But Turkey also has to understand that the Europeans are very annoyed because of the way in which they reacted to the exploration, because it directly challenges the whole legitimacy of Cyprus, which is part of the EU."