EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

The recent escalation of the conflict over natural resources near Cyprus is likely to worsen the relationship between the European Union and Turkey and has already led to sanctions being imposed on Ankara by the EU. However, European elections taking place amid this dispute produced a landmark result on the ethnically and politically divided island.

Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, as a part of the largest enlargement in the Union’s history, along with 10 other countries including the Czech Republic. By that time, the Eastern Mediterranean island country had been divided into two for 30 years.

In 1974, Turkey invaded the island. This led to Cyprus being partitioned between ethnically Greek south and ethnically Turkish north. Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey, whilst the southern Republic of Cyprus, which takes up about two-thirds of the island, is recognised by the international community, including the EU, with the north being seen a part of this republic. Between these two entities is the United Nations buffer zone, guarded by the organisation’s peacekeeping force. Also, two permanent British military bases, Akrotiri and Dhekelia, are situated on the island.

The Cyprus-Turkey relationship is one of the many reasons why the Turkish EU accession process has stalled for so long. And over the past few months, the situation has been escalating. Turkey not-so-secretly transported 42 tanks to the Island, just 10 kilometres from the Cypriot capital Nicosia. More importantly, following the discovery of natural gas in the vicinity of the island, Ankara has been exploring the possibility of drilling the gas in the area it considers its own, angering the Republic of Cyprus and the EU. Since May, the drilling has been taking place off the western coast of the island. The second drilling ship arrived in July to the northeast. Cyprus protested and urged the EU to act.

Map of Cyprus (Chaosdruid/Wikimedia Commons)

“This planned second drilling … is an escalation by Turkey of its repeated violations of Cyprus’s sovereign rights based on the U.N. Law of the Sea and international law, and is a most serious violation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus,” the presidency in Nicosia stated in July as quoted by Reuters.

Ankara’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the operation would continue until the Republic of Cyprus agrees with the North’s proposal to cooperate on exploration and exploitation of gas.

EU responded with its foreign policy branch calling Turkey’s actions “a further unacceptable escalation which violates the sovereignty of Cyprus”. And on Monday July 15, foreign ministers of the 28 member states decided to suspend contacts between high-level officials and suspend about $164 million in aid to Turkey, money the country has received as a candidate country. They also urged the European Investment Bank to review its lending to Ankara. The New York Times noted, while the EU in the end did not impose all-out, drastic sanctions against Turkish companies involved in drilling, this is another blow to the troubled Turkish economy.

In an immediate response, Turkey accused the EU of partisanship and bias, as it has been doing in the previous weeks, and said sanctions “will not affect in the slightest our country’s determination to continue hydrocarbon activities in the Eastern Mediterranean”. Third vessel is now exploring south off Cyprus and fourth could be deployed any day.

While the first Turkish ship was already drilling gas off Cyprus coast, the 2019 European election took place on the divided island which has six seats in the European Parliament. The main Greek Cypriot opposition party, the communist Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) ended up second and gained two seats.

One of them was won by a university professor Niyazi Kizilyurek, who became not only the first Turkish Cypriot to be elected MEP, but also the first to be elected to the public office in the Republic of Cyprus.

“It’s hugely symbolic that for the first time the Turkish Cypriot community will feel that they have a voice in an international forum,” said Hubert Faustmann, professor of political science at the University of Nicosia, to the Guardian before the election. Also, according to AFP, more than 5600 people from the North crossed the UN-patrolled zone to vote in the Southern republic. Turkish Cypriots under the current constitution cannot participate in parliamentary ballots in the south, but as EU citizens can run and vote in the European elections.

Nevertheless, Cypriot English daily Cyprus Mail downplayed the results of the European elections in Cyprus, arguing that Kizilyurek’s election “did not come as a surprise” given AKEL’s popularity and “certain” backing from voters supporting the reunification of the island. Moreover, the daily, like AFP, pointed to the fact that no woman was elected to the European Parliament and also criticised the citizens for sticking to the big parties instead of giving chance to smaller ones like voters in a form of “protest vote”.

“The Europe-wide surge in support for green parties was not seen in Cyprus. It appears that Cypriot voters, despite complaining about their parties and politicians, are not interested in giving the big parties a jolt by backing smaller parties. They show their disapproval by not bothering to vote. Instead of shaking up the big parties it merely encourages their complacency because it allows them to preserve their share of the vote.”

The potential clash between the EU and Turkey over the right to drill near the coast of Cyprus can have more consequences than damaging Turkey’s economy. It already shows the member states EU’s willingness to stand up for them when they are subjected to the violation of international law. Furthermore, these events may as well be making an excellent case for the need for an “EU army”, long-discussed closer cooperation of the EU countries within (or outside of) NATO.

Cyprus is not a member of NATO and Turkey is, and thus any potential action against Ankara would be more easily taken within the EU than NATO – even if economic.

That leads to the possible future development of the EU-Turkey relationship. Thanks to 1995 Customs Union agreement, the economic relationship is flourishing. Turkey is now the EU’s 5th largest trading partner, both in exports and imports. The EU is Turkey’s number one import and export partner (by far), according to the European Commission. In the Cyprus case, the European Union has already taken some measures, though they are seen largely symbolic and not exactly fulfilling Cyprus’ expectations. With Turkey openly proclaiming to ignore them, more sanctions could follow.

But there is also the EU-Turkey migration agreement. The deal struck in 2016 was meant to reduce the number of people heading to (and reaching) Europe through Greece. And it achieved that, but also left thousands stranded in miserable, inhumane conditions in overcrowded camps and led to increase in usage of alternative routes (and also increase in deaths), mainly in Western Mediterranean.

Because of the deal, it is unlikely the EU will target Turkey as a country with broad sanctions. In a draft statement put together before the first sanctions, the EU acknowledged the importance of the relationship with Turkey and said “it would only be targeting people linked to these specific illegal activities”. “We’re trying to calibrate that carefully because we need Turkish cooperation on migration, NATO, countering terrorism.”

And Turkey, it seems from MFA Cavusoglu’s statement, is aware of the leverage it has over the Union. “Whether the issue of migration or others, they [EU] have to come to us. There is no other way.”

The question is, how far will EU let Turkey go.

Jiří Lacina


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