EU Set to Slam Turkey Amid Brewing Mediterranean Energy Conflict

(Bloomberg) -- European Union leaders are set to slam Turkey over its sea disputes with Greece and Cyprus on Thursday, in a move that could anger Ankara days before a planned summit meant to mend bilateral relations.

In a draft obtained by Bloomberg and due to be released at the EU summit in Brussels, the bloc says it “strongly condemns Turkey’s continued illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea and underlines its full solidarity with Cyprus and Greece.”

The planned statement follows Germany’s scolding of Turkey for its military operations in northwest Syria, and adds to a series of disputes that include Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system. Heated exchanges have so far had little material impact, beyond symbolic measures.

While EU-Turkey relations soured last year amid alarm in Europe over Erdogan’s crackdown on political opponents, the bloc has been keen to to ensure that Ankara continues to uphold an agreement to prevent an influx of Mideast refugees and has refused to pull the plug on long-stalled Turkish membership negotiations.

“The EU and Turkish authorities have been playing a game of chicken over which side will be the first to pull the plug on Turkey’s accession process,” Steven Blockmans, head of EU foreign policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said in email. “The caution with which the EU proceeds also reveals European leaders’ reluctance to damage cooperation on certain policy areas -- from security to migration -- the risk of which Erdogan keeps reminding them.”

Offshore Claims

EU leaders are expected to hold a broad discussion on Turkey on Thursday evening. Last month, they threatened to cancel a summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned for March 26 in Varna, Bulgaria, because of tensions with Cyprus over energy exploration.

That was after a Turkish navy prevented drilling by Italy-based Eni SpA in waters that are part of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone, forcing the company to relocate its vessel. A few days earlier, a Turkish warship had rammed a Greek coast-guard vessel off Aegean islets over which Ankara claims sovereignty.

The Greek government also protests the arrest and continuing detention of two of its soldiers who says they wandered off across the border during a routine patrol last month. On the other hand, Ankara has slammed a Greek court decision to refuse extradition of eight Turkish officers who sought asylum in Greece after a mid-2016 failed coup attempt against Erdogan.

While mock dogfights over the Aegean are a routine occurrence, Erdogan’s increasingly assertive stance over Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone and ever more frequent clashes over Greece’s territorial water claims raise the risk of a repeat on the events of January 1996, when the two traditional foes came to the brink of an all-out war.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.