The impasse, which EU envoys were unable to break at a meeting on Wednesday, is holding up unrelated sanctions against Belarus and underscores the paralysis in foreign policy that the EU’s chief executive berated publicly in a speech on Wednesday.
“It’s an extremely difficult issue,” one senior member state diplomat said. “It is probably the single most worrying issue for the EU in the coming days.”
Turkey, an EU candidate country and NATO member, has alarmed the bloc by stepping up its gas exploration off Cyprus and claiming rights to waters also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.
The dispute has brought to a head a host of other tensions, from Turkey’s involvement in Syria and Libya to what the EU says is growing authoritarianism under President Tayyip Erdogan.
Gestures by Ankara this week to return an exploration ship to port have only served to complicate a unified EU response from all 27 governments.
“Turkey is trying to divide the member states,” a second EU diplomat said, noting that Turkey had extended the operations of an energy drilling ship off Cyprus until mid-October.
Turkey does not recognise Cyprus, an EU and euro zone member, which was split after a Turkish invasion in 1974 spurred by a coup engineered by the generals then ruling Greece. A Turkish Cypriot state in north Cyprus is recognised only by Ankara.
The issue, fast becoming the bloc’s most intractable conflict, also highlights what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen complained of on Wednesday, namely that all foreign policy decisions must be agreed by all governments. Von der Leyen called for majority voting.
For the moment, Germany wants more time for talks with Turkey while France, Cyprus and Greece are demanding a punitive response to Turkish gas exploration in what the EU says are its territorial waters.
Hungary worries about antagonising Turkey and jeopardising a 2016 migration agreement in which Ankara gives shelter to Syrian refugees in return for EU funds.
Others favour using “carrots” as well as “sticks”, by offering Turkey deeper trade and visa links with the world’s largest trading bloc to calm the situation.
Meanwhile, Cyprus has asked for more time to consider separate sanctions on Belarus in support of a mass pro-democracy movement there, which other EU governments interpret as a way of pressing for similar punitive measures against Turkey.
“It’s fundamentally wrong to be linking Turkey and Belarus sanctions,” said a third EU diplomat. “Cyprus seems to be saying it will only approve Belarus the moment Turkey is done simultaneously. But that kills the idea of a swift EU reaction to the Belarus repressions.”
Cyprus denies linking the two issues.
EU foreign ministers will try to find a way through at their regular meeting on Monday. But diplomats say a solution will need the summit, looking to the bloc’s most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, to find a way forward next Thursday or Friday.
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