On March 25, EU leaders held a discussion via video conference on the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and on the European Union’s relations with Turkey, offering to expand cooperation with Ankara, but also threatened to impose sanctions if Turkey restarts exploration over disputed hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean.

“We recall the European Union’s strategic interest in a stable and secure environment in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the development of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey,” the Members of the European Council said in a statement.

“We welcome the recent de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean through the discontinuation of illegal drilling activities, the resumption of bilateral talks between Greece and Turkey and the forthcoming talks on the Cyprus problem under the auspices of the United Nations,” the statement read.

The EU leaders called on Turkey “to abstain from renewed provocations or unilateral actions in breach of international law”. Taking into account the Joint Communication, the members of the European Council reaffirmed the EU’s determination, in case of such action, to use the instruments and options at its disposal to defend its interests and those of its Member States as well as to uphold regional stability.

The EU leaders warned Turkey they may use travel bans and asset freezes on individuals, as well as sanctions on important sectors of the economy such as energy and tourism if Ankara restarts exploration over disputed hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean.

At the same time, aiming to reward Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for pulling back from confrontation over gas exploration in disputed areas, EU leaders said they will start preparations to deepen cooperation with Ankara, including a Customs Union.

Asked if this ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach could lead to a resolution in the East Med gas exploration and discourage further Turkey drilling, Charles Ellinas, senior fellow at the Global Energy Center of the Atlantic Council, told New Europe on March 26, “It will certainly help but it is not a pre-requisite”.

He noted that by far the bigger factors are the state of the global gas markets and the oil companies themselves. “With massive losses last year, it remains to be seen where they will invest their reduced spending this year. I expect that some activity will resume towards the end of the year, such as confirmatory drilling at Glaucus by ExxonMobil, but not much else,” Ellinas said.

In April last year, the US giant put on hold crucial drilling plans to confirm a large gas deposit in Block 10 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) south of the island.

Ellinas told New Europe the EU Council statement is an encouragement for Turkey to refrain from unilateral actions in the East Med, something that has also been reinforced by recent US statements. “Let’s hope that progress at the Cyprus problem discussions in April – however tentative – provide further encouragement,” he said.

He noted that sees an increased US role in the region, especially after recent statements US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden have made it clear that the US is keen to contribute to and see stability in the region. “I think that the US will take a dim view if the confrontations of 2020 are repeated,” Ellinas said.

The EU leaders noted that provided that the current de-escalation is sustained and that Turkey engages constructively, and subject to the established conditionalities set out in previous European Council conclusions, in order to further strengthen the recent more positive dynamic, the European Union is ready to engage with Turkey in “a phased, proportionate and reversible manner” to enhance cooperation in a number of areas of common interest and take further decisions at the European Council meeting in June.

Regarding economic cooperation, EU leaders invited the Commission to intensify talks with Turkey to address current difficulties in the implementation of the Customs Union, ensuring its effective application to all Member States, and invited in parallel the Council to work on a mandate for the modernisation of the Customs Union. “Such a mandate may be adopted by the Council subject to additional guidance by the European Council,” the statement read.

The members of the European Council also said they are prepared to launch high level dialogues with Turkey on issues of mutual concern, such as public health, climate and counter-terrorism as well as regional issues.

Finally, they invited the Commission to explore how to strengthen cooperation with Turkey on people to people contacts and mobility.

“Turkey has shown a more constructive attitude,” Reuters quoted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as telling reporters following the summit. “However, we also know this process of de-escalation remains fragile”.

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