Cyprus on Thursday defied rising pressure to approve European Union sanctions on Belarus at a leaders’ summit, urging fellow EU governments to also sanction Turkey over its oil and gas drilling in the Mediterranean.
Meeting in Brussels for a two-day summit, leaders are set to confront Cyprus, which is accused of holding up approval of economic sanctions on Belarus. The sanctions plan follows an election in August that the West and the opposition say was rigged.
Cyprus says it cannot support the proposed sanctions against Belarus officials unless action is taken in parallel against Turkey over a separate dispute over energy resources that has raised tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
It says the EU must first agree to impose sanctions on Turkey to send a message that Ankara’s oil and gas exploration along the coast of the Mediterranean island is unacceptable. Turkey began drilling for oil and gas near Cyprus last year despite warnings from Brussels, and fears of a military escalation mounted over the summer after NATO allies Greece and Turkey held naval drills in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Cypriot officials cite an August agreement among EU foreign ministers to approve Turkish sanctions and Belarus sanctions together, arguing that both are of equal importance.
Despite friendly elbow bumps as the summit got under way in Brussels, leaders wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic were set to confront Cyprus, one of the EU’s smallest members, to break the paralysis on Belarus sanctions.
Wearing a face mask with the island of Cyprus embroidered in gold, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades did not stop to speak to reporters on arrival in Brussels, but won public support from Austria, which chided fellow leaders for not supporting Nicosia.
“The European Union finally has to show (Turkish) President (Tayyip) Erdogan where our red lines are,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “This means the termination of enlargement talks, and sanctions.”
Earlier in a message marking Cyprus’ 60th anniversary of independence from Britain Anastasiades was defiant, accusing Turkey of “gunboat diplomacy” and violating its maritime shelf in a search for hydrocarbons.
“What I expect from the European Council summit is a more concrete and effective stance, to end this gunboat diplomacy,” he said
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meanwhile sent a letter to all EU leaders except Greece and Cyprus, lobbying for the bloc to treat Ankara fairly and blaming Athens and Nicosia for the tensions in the contested waters of the Mediterranean.
The EU vowed a month ago to impose sanctions on Belarus for alleged election fraud and human rights abuses, but the consensus-driven union has been prevented from fulfilling that promise by Cyprus, one of its smallest members.
While Britain and Canada have gone ahead with punitive measures on Minsk to show support for pro-democracy protests, the impasse in the 27-country EU, where decisions are taken by unanimity, has cost the bloc credibility, diplomats said.
Draft conclusions prepared for the summit said EU leaders condemned unacceptable violence against peaceful protesters in Belarus and did not recognise the election results. It added that “restrictive measures” should be imposed without delay.
The draft summit conclusions had no agreed line on Turkey, as Germany does not want to disrupt separate talks between Ankara and Athens, also over oil and gas drilling, by imposing EU sanctions. EU diplomats say a solution could involve a promise to Cyprus for tough sanctions on Turkey in the future.
A senior Cypriot diplomat told Reuters early in the day that the summit was headed for an impasse if the EU did not send a message to Turkey that Ankara’s oil and gas exploration along the coast of the Mediterranean island is unacceptable.
“To release the Belarus file we have to have an agreement on our proposals as well,” the diplomat said.
“I imagine there will be a long discussion in the European Council (summit). I’m not excluding that something might come out of it but, as of now, I wouldn’t put money on having a happy outcome.”
EU diplomats say a solution could involve a promise to Cyprus for tough sanctions on Turkey in the future.
“The idea is to threaten Turkey with retaliatory measures if it continues with drilling and other provocations in Cypriot and Greek waters,” a second senior EU diplomat said.
“This is meant to offer guarantees to Cyprus and convince Nicosia to lift its veto on Belarus sanctions.”
The Cypriot diplomat rejected criticism from some EU member states that Cyprus’ veto on the Belarus sanctions was undermining the credibility of the bloc to take foreign policy action in its backyard, pointing out that Turkey is the EU’s backyard too.
He said that for Cypriots this was “a national issue” and so “if we have to be alone we have to be alone”.
“The (Cypriot) president is between a rock and a hard place in the sense that even the opposition said that the move on Belarus was good. So he cannot go back home having released the Belarus file without having anything tangible to show for that.”
“There’s a great deal of political activity at the highest levels…to try and unblock the situation on sanctions against Belarus,” a senior EU diplomat said.
The economically powerful EU sees itself as a beacon of democracy and human rights, eager to influence international events through its soft power that transformed former communist neighbours into thriving market economies.
But its unanimity rule in foreign policy and its strained relationship with Turkey have raised questions about the EU’s ability to exert influence internationally.
Weakened in foreign policy by Britain’s departure from the EU — a subject that will feature on the second day of the summit — the EU is being pulled in different directions by France’s tough stance on Turkey and Germany’s push for dialogue.
Six sources told Reuters last week that Britain, Canada and the United States planned to impose sanctions on individual Belarusians in a coordinated move. Only London and Ottawa followed suit on Tuesday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, three sources said on Wednesday that Washington refrained because it believed the EU might achieve consensus at the European Council meeting.
One source familiar with the matter told Reuters that a US package, including human rights sanctions, was essentially ready, but the timing of any announcement was uncertain.
The sanctions aim to impose consequences for the disputed election, which the opposition says was stolen, and for the treatment of protesters in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled for 26 years.
Meanwhile, the US has held off on joining Britain and Canada in imposing sanctions on Belarus in hopes the European Union can overcome the internal dispute, paving the way to coordinated US and EU sanctions, four sources said on Wednesday.
The US State Department did not directly address why it had not joined Britain and Canada in imposing sanctions, but said it welcomed their having done so and noted US sanctions already applied to 16 Belarusians, including Lukashenko.
“We are coordinating closely with our European partners to promote accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus,” said a State Department spokesman on condition he not be identified.