London — The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Sept. 15 that the bloc's relations with Turkey had reached a "watershed" moment over Ankara's continued exploration work in the East Mediterranean.
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Borrell, in remarks to the European Parliament, said the world would go "one side or the other depending on what is going to happen" in the coming days.
Turkey's state-owned TPAO has drilled a handful of wells offshore Cyprus in the past year, and a seismic vessel has spent the past month surveying a large area in disputed maritime waters between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete.
Turkey has hoped to replicate the significant gas discoveries made in the East Mediterranean, including the Zohr field offshore Egypt, Israel's Leviathan and Tamar fields, and three discoveries in waters offshore Cyprus.
"I have spent the last few months trying to facilitate de-escalation efforts," Borrell said. "But the least I can say is that more efforts are needed -- the softest way of saying that the situation has not been improving."
Turkey is also a key transit country for oil and gas supplies, with a large part of the Southern Gas Corridor designed to bring 10 Bcm a year of Azerbaijani gas to Southern Europe located in Turkey.
The final part of corridor -- the TAP gas line to Italy -- is set to start up before the end of 2020.
Borrell said he welcomed the latest move by Turkey to halt seismic exploration on what he called the "continental shelf of Greece" as a step in the right direction.
"It gives us some hope that it will lead to further steps towards dialog," he said.
However, Turkey has said its surveying vessel, the Oruc Reis, has returned to port only to restock, with plans to resume seismic work.
Speaking on Turkey's NTV news channel, foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the return of the Oruc Reis to port did not represent a step back by Ankara.
Cavusoglu said the vessel had been at sea for a month and had only returned to port for resupplying and routine maintenance.
Cavusoglu added that he was happy to hold formal meetings with Greece to resolve the issue but stressed that the meetings should be held without preconditions. "If they insist on pre-conditions, we will make our pre-conditions," he said.
He reiterated the stance in comments posted to the Turkish foreign ministry website Sept. 15 following a conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
According to S&P Global Platts trade flow software cFlow, the Oruc Reis is currently in port at Antalya on Turkey's Mediterranean coast.
It returned to port on Sept. 14 having embarked on a month-long seismic survey mission on Aug. 10, according to cFlow.
Turkey's Yavuz drillship remains in waters offshore Cyprus, in Block 6 as licensed by the Cypriot government.
EU leaders are due to meet on Sept. 24-25 for a special summit to consider possible action against Turkey, with all options said to be on the table.
The EU in February already imposed sanctions on two TPAO officials as a result of what Brussels described as "unauthorized" drilling offshore Cyprus.
Commenting on the summit, Cavusoglu said he was not expecting the EU leaders to take any decision on formal sanctions against Turkey.
However, conceding that it was possible that some sanctions could be imposed against the Oruc Reis or its crew, he warned: "Would such a move make us give up? No, as before it would make us more resolute."
He also outlined Ankara's objectives in the East Mediterranean as: a fair and equitable delimitation of maritime boundaries; protection of its continental shelf rights; protection of Turkish Cypriots' equal rights over the offshore resources of the island; and the creation of genuine, inclusive, fair and equitable offshore energy cooperation mechanisms in the East Mediterranean.
Borrell said the situation in the East Mediterranean required "urgent and collective engagement."
"Turkey has to refrain from taking unilateral actions," he said, adding that this was a basic element to allow dialog to start.
"With the serious developments in the East Mediterranean and Turkish foreign policy actions in the region since last fall, things have become even more worrying and complex. As I said, this is a watershed moment in the history of our relations with Turkey," he said.