Tension with Turkey over off Cyprus drilling rises

Pre-accession aid cut by 75%, other sanctions considered

Photo: EPA Yavuz drilling ship will soon be sent for further exploration off Cyprus.

The EU once again urged Turkey last week to drop plans to drill for oil and gas around Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean, saying such exploration was illegal, news wires reported. “Concrete steps towards creating an environment conducive to dialogue in good faith are needed,” EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement. “The intention by Turkey to launch further exploration and drilling activities in the region goes, regrettably, in the opposite direction.”

Turkish authorities vow to start exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean “as soon as possible” this year, after signing a maritime deal with Libya in November which has angered neighbouring countries. Greece said the deal failed to take into account the island of Crete, while Turkey has already upset Cyprus by sending ships to search for oil and gas off the divided island.

Earlier this month, Greece, Cyprus and Israel signed a major deal to construct an EastMed pipeline to ship gas to Europe, despite Turkey's vehement opposition. According to Ankara, this is “no longer legally possible” for any search and drilling activities or a pipeline without Libya or Turkey's approval. “The international law of the sea and the sovereign rights over the maritime zones of all Member States have to be respected,” the EU statement said.

The EU is ready to slam further sanctions on Turkey if Ankara sends Yavuz ship to drill once again off Cyprus. “We have agreed to ask the respective bodies of the Council to finalise preparations for adding Turkish individuals and businesses responsible for illegal drilling to a blacklist and imposing sanctions against them,” EU Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell said last Monday. At the same time Turkey called on the EU to end what it said was the bloc's prejudice against Turkish Cypriots, defending its launch of a fresh round of drilling off the Mediterranean island.

As a step towards further sanctions, the EU will cut pre-accession aid to Turkey by 75%, according to a letter sent by Borrell to the European Parliament. The cut is directly linked to Cyprus drilling and military operation in Northern Syria. Turkey will now only receive €168m, of which €150m will be spent on strengthening democracy and rule of law, while the rest is earmarked for rural development. The cut in aid, however, doesn't affect the €3.5bn offered to Turkey as part of a larger EU deal to prevent migrants from reaching European shores.

Separately, the European Investment Bank, a lending arm of the EU, has said it will keep restrictions on Turkey imposed in light of its gas drilling operations in Cyprus' waters. “Unless there is a change in direction at EU level, we will probably maintain the selective approach to lending in Turkey we have had in the past couple of years, at least for the foreseeable future,” a bank spokesman told Reuters.

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