London — EU leaders have paved the way to place restrictions on more Turkish individuals and companies involved in drilling for gas offshore Cyprus, but stopped short of adopting broader economic sanctions against Ankara.
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Turkey's drilling program in waters claimed by Cyprus, and its surveying activities in waters claimed by Greece with the Oruc Reis seismic vessel, have put Ankara at odds with the EU.
In a statement Dec. 11, the European Council said Turkish "unilateral and provocative activities" in the East Mediterranean were still taking place, including in Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone.
It said it would invite the Council to adopt "additional listings based on decision from November last year concerning restrictive measures in view of Turkey's unauthorized drilling activities in the East Mediterranean."
More wide-reaching sanctions had been called for, particularly by Greece, to penalize Turkey for its sustained exploration campaign in disputed waters.
Brussels last November adopted a framework for sanctions that can be imposed against those responsible for Turkey's gas exploration work in disputed waters of the East Mediterranean, and on Nov. 6 2020, extended it by one year.
To date the sanctions have been applied only once -- in February this year when the EU placed two senior officials at Turkey's state-owned upstream company TPAO under restrictive measures.
The measures -- which consist of a travel ban to the EU and an asset freeze -- were imposed against TPAO exploration head Mehmet Ferruh Akalin and deputy exploration director Ali Coscun Namoglu.
EU citizens and entities are also not allowed to make funds available to the two TPAO officials.
Despite its opposition to Turkey's exploration activities offshore Cyprus, the Council reaffirmed the EU's strategic interest in the development of a "cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey" and stressed the importance of "keeping channels of communication between the EU and Turkey open."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Dec. 11 in a press conference from Brussels that she was "happy" with the consensus reached by EU leaders.
"I hope that the messages we've sent are being received and understood," Merkel said.
In response to the new measures, Turkey's foreign ministry blamed "one or two EU countries with narrow political agendas" for damaging positive Turkey-EU relations.
In a likely reference to Greece and Cyprus, the ministry said they were causing the EU to look for restrictive measures "which are of no use."
"Some EU countries have abused their membership and with their demands have pushed the EU and Turkey into a vicious cycle," it said.
It said the conclusions of the European Council with regard to Turkey had been included "only because of solidarity and the pressure of the veto."
"For the sake of regional stability, Turkey is always ready to start exploratory talks with Greece without preconditions," it said.
The ministry added that the EU had again ignored the will of the Turkish Cypriot people "who are the co-owners of the island of Cyprus."
"The best way is for the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to come together to discuss the issue of hydrocarbon resources and the sharing of their revenues, which is causing tension in the East Mediterranean, and to take concrete steps towards a solution."
TPAO has drilled a number of wells offshore Cyprus since August last year and has drilled two wells in blocks already licensed by Cyprus to international explorers such as France's Total and Italy's Eni.
The latest well drilled by Turkey's Yavuz drillship in waters south of Cyprus produced "encouraging results," Turkish energy minister Fatih Donmez said last month.
In September, Donmez said none of the seven wells drilled by the Yavuz and Turkey 's first drillship, the Fatih, offshore Cyprus had revealed economically viable reserves.
The Council also welcomed the fact that the Oruc Reis seismic vessel had returned to port in Turkey having carried out work in waters between the Greek island of Crete and Cyprus.
"The Council notes Turkey's withdrawal of the vessel Oruc Reis and insists on sustained de-escalation so as to allow for the early resumption and smooth continuation of direct exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey," it said.
Donmez announced in a tweet Nov. 30 that the Oruc Reis had "completed its two-dimensional seismic surveys in the Demre field, which it started on Aug. 10", having collected 10,955 km (6,792 miles) of 2D data had returned to the Turkish port of Antalya.
Turkey has been looking to replicate the significant gas finds made by Egypt, Israel and Cyprus in the East Mediterranean.
Turkey and Greece have both lodged rival claims to a large tract of seabed south of the Turkish coast and the Greek islands based on differing interpretations of international maritime law.