Europe is struggling to respond to Turkey’s increasingly frequent flexing of military muscle, which has become one of the European Union’s biggest foreign-policy challenges and left it divided over what actions to take.
But at a summit Thursday, EU leaders plan to stress diplomacy over antagonism.
Turkey’s decision to send troops into Libya, its unconditional support for Azerbaijan in renewed fighting with Armenia, its acquisition of advanced weaponry from Russia and a standoff over maritime zones and energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean have EU capitals concerned that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to project Turkish power at their expense.
EU officials recently floated options to member states including new targeted sanctions against Turkish officials and entities over Turkey’s energy exploration in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus, and broader sanctions that could hit Turkey’s economy hard because of its deep links to the EU.
Despite calls to raise the pressure—from Greece, Cyprus, France and others—a push by Berlin and officials in Brussels to hold off steps that could provoke fresh tensions is set to prevail for now, diplomats said.
European Council President Charles Michel, who hosts EU summits, said in a letter to the bloc’s leaders on Tuesday that dialogue with Turkey is the objective, while “all options remain on the table.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, standing at right beside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in January, recently criticized Turkey’s expression of support for Azerbaijan in fighting with Armenia.
odd andersen/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The EU’s ties with Turkey have become a dominant challenge for the bloc, while capitals are also trying to recraft their ties with a rising China and manage deep strains in trans-Atlantic relations.
Cyprus, angry about Turkey’s gas exploration, has blocked EU sanctions against Belarus officials involved in the repression of protests, with Cypriot officials saying those sanctions can only go ahead when measures are taken against Turkey. That is a position Mr. Michel hopes to soften at the summit, senior EU diplomats said.
Western diplomats said tensions between Ankara and Athens this summer rose to levels not seen since the 1970s, when Turkey and Greece clashed over Cyprus.
Ahead of this week’s summit, Mr. Erdogan sent a letter to EU leaders in which he said Ankara stood ready for discussions but blamed Greece and Cyprus for the recent escalation of tension.
“Greece, along with the Greek Cypriot administration, tried to impose its ‘maximalist maritime jurisdiction claims’ that aim to imprison Turkey inside the Gulf of Antalya by using the EU and claiming that these boundaries were its, as well as the EU’s, external maritime borders,” Mr. Erdogan said, according to excerpts of the letter released by his office.
Some EU officials worry that the bloc’s divisions and its cautious approach will play into Ankara’s hands. Mr. Erdogan has proven adept over two decades at exploiting European differences to ensure Turkey, an ally to many EU countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, faces minimum costs for pursuing its ambitions.
To reflect those concerns, EU leaders are expected to make plain that sanctions remain a serious option if there isn’t a sustainable engagement by Turkey with the EU’s concerns, above all its energy drilling in Cyprus’s waters.
EU leaders will also discuss Turkey’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after French President Emmanuel Macron slammed Ankara’s “bellicose comments” against Armenia.
Turkey’s relations with the EU have been volatile for years, despite over a decade of membership talks, which have been effectively suspended for several years.
European diplomats said the flashpoints with Ankara are more serious than before. While past concerns focused on Mr. Erdogan’s domestic democratic backsliding and his threats to send refugees into Europe, Turkey is increasingly seen as a serious strategic challenge on Europe’s borders.
In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of contacts between senior German and EU officials and Ankara, Cyprus and Greece.
The talks have aimed to persuade Turkey to take steps to calm tensions over energy in the Eastern Mediterranean, persuade Greece and Turkey to resume bilateral discussions again and to convince Cyprus that, while EU member states will stand up for its rights, it should end its veto on Belarus sanctions.
The discussions prompted Turkey to suspend its gas exploration in Greek waters but not in Cypriot waters. After a four-year halt, Greece and Turkey have said they plan to soon resume negotiations over maritime delimitation issues.
Meantime, both Mr. Michel and Mr. Erdogan have talked about convening some kind of international conference on energy and other issues for all Eastern Mediterranean countries, although diplomats warn that a serious effort to jointly resolve the region’s conflicts is a distant hope.
Officials in Brussels and Berlin hope that Ankara could be receptive to efforts to lower tensions, at least for now. Turkey’s economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis, making Europe’s sanctions threat more powerful.
Diplomats also say Mr. Erdogan may be careful about overplaying his hand after suffering a setback when his threat to send millions of refugees into the EU was countered earlier this year when Greece, backed by its EU partners, effectively shut its land and sea borders and stopped people crossing from Turkey.
Write to Laurence Norman at firstname.lastname@example.org and David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com
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