BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to prepare limited sanctions on Turkish individuals over an energy exploration dispute with Greece and Cyprus, postponing any harsher steps until March as countries sparred over how to handle Ankara.
Shying away from a threat made in October to consider wider economic measures, EU leaders agreed a summit statement that paves the way to punish individuals accused of planning or taking part in what the bloc says is unauthorised drilling off Cyprus.
The steps did not go far enough for Greece, with envoys saying the country expressed frustration that the EU was hesitant to target Turkey’s economy over the hydrocarbons dispute, as Germany, Italy and Spain pushed to give diplomacy more time.
In contrast, the United States is poised to impose sanctions on Turkey over its acquisition last year of Russian S-400 air defence systems, five sources including two U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.
France, angered by Turkish foreign policy in Syria and Libya, has sought to push the EU to consider sectorial sanctions on Turkey’s economy, but did not have wide support.
Turkey says it is operating in waters on its own continental shelf or areas where Turkish Cypriots have rights. Its president Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he was not concerned by any sanctions the bloc might impose.
The EU asset freezes of as-yet unnamed individuals and companies will be in addition to two officials already on a sanctions list set up in November 2019, as first reported by Reuters on Wednesday.
“It is very clear what is at stake here: the credibility of the European Union,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a video message before the summit discussion, which one diplomat described as a “heated debate”.
Underscoring the sensitivities of penalising NATO member Turkey, which is also an EU candidate country, another diplomat said there were largely fruitless “long discussions about words” in the final text, which accused Turkey of “provocations”.
In their statement, which softened some criticism of Turkey in early drafts seen by Reuters, EU leaders told officials “to adopt additional listings ... in view of Turkey’s unauthorised drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean”.
A French official said the decision was, for now, a “response to the worsening situation” with Ankara.
EU leaders now expect the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, to come forward by March with a broad overview of the bloc’s political, trade and economic relations with Turkey.
That could allow for the EU to either broaden sanctions or offer closer trade ties via an expanded customs union, depending on Ankara’s willingness to help end tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, avoiding further measures, diplomats said.
In 2011, the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot government began exploring for natural gas with a U.S. company despite warnings from Turkey, which does not recognise the divided island’s status and claims exploration rights.
Tensions flared in August when Ankara sent a seismic exploration ship into Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone and also in waters claimed by Greece. The EU, led by Germany, has been trying to negotiate a settlement but without success.
Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski in Brussels, Michel Rose in Paris and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell
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