Empires are back, Borrell told EU lawmakers ahead of pivotal EU summit

The EU has reached a critical junction in its relations with Turkey, its chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, said on Tuesday (15 September), urging Ankara to back down from conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean and uphold basic human rights in the country.

“In general we can say Europe is facing a situation in which the old empires are coming back,” Borrell told the European Parliament in a preview for next week’s special European Council meeting.

Russia, China and Turkey are now “coming back with an approach on their immediate neighbourhood and also globally.”

His comments came as Europe’s diplomacy gears up for a crucial September Council meant to define the EU’s response to Turkey’s activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, the situation in Belarus and a response to the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

In a debate with MEPs on the “dangerous” escalation and the role of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, Borrell said ties with Ankara “are at a watershed moment in history, which will go to one side or the other, depending on what happens in the next days.”

At the same time, Borrell stressed the “EU stands in full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus with respect to Turkey” and “immediate de-escalation is essential to allow the resumption of dialogue and the negotiations, which is the only path towards stability and lasting solutions”.

He underlined that Turkey must stop all unilateral actions, and that “the EU foreign ministers were very clear on the possible consequences in the absence of progress in engaging with Turkey.”

Sanctions looming

In Berlin, EU foreign ministers agreed on 28 August on a list of sanctions against Turkey in the event that Ankara does not de-escalate its actions in the increasingly tense Eastern Mediterranean, including illegal drilling for oil and gas.

The first phase of sanctions would concern Turkey’s energy sector, especially companies involved in the illegal drillings in the Eastern Mediterranean in the exclusive economic zones of Greece and Cyprus.

Borrell said sanctions could be extended to ships or other assets involved in the drilling, and include a ban on the use of EU ports and supplies, as well as restrictions of “economic and financial infrastructure related with this activity”.

Wide-ranging sanctions against whole sectors of the Turkish economy could also be considered, he said but indicated these might only come into play if more targeted measures against the drilling were not effective.

Borrell told EU lawmakers he had urged all sides “to create the urgently needed space to work with the Turkish leadership, to achieve a de-escalation that will allow pursuing lasting solutions to the underlying problems of the crisis.”

Several Socialist lawmakers in the European Parliament have floated the idea of imposing an arms embargo, along with sanctions, on Ankara, as the EU gears up for a crucial September summit meant to define its response to Turkey’s activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

One such way, according to him, would be to push for a resumption of talks on Cyprus under United Nation auspices.

Borrell welcomed the cessation of hydrocarbon exploration by Turkey’s Oruc Reis seismic research ship in Greece’s continental shelf as “a step in the right direction,” but expressed reservations about progress on what he again described as a “watershed moment in history.”

However, while Turkey seems to have ended its campaign in the East Mediterranean, Turkish officials say they might resume actions in the region.

“The world will go one side or the other, depending on what is going to happen in the next days,” Borrell said, adding that “it is clear that solutions will not come from an increasingly confrontational relationship.”

Speaking about the future of the future EU-Turkey relationship, Borrell pointed towards the “worrying backsliding in rule of law and fundamental freedoms”. In June 2018, the backsliding and tense relations with some member states had led to a de facto freezing of Turkey’s EU accession talks.

MEPs call for stronger measures

MEP David McAllister (EPP), chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET), said during the session that “we should be extremely concerned about the risk of direct military confrontation” in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Dutch MEP Malik Azmani (Renew) cautioned that the dispute could have devastating consequences and that is why the EU must respond strongly” and called for a re-defined relationship with Ankara.

“It is difficult to see Turkey as a candidate country,” he added.

At the same time, MEP Sergey Lagodinsky (Greens) urged MEPs that the conflict “will not be solved by one-sided blaming” and proposed the EU and Turkey should consider developing alternative sources of energy, rather than always betting on gas.

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