Cyprus defied pressure to approve European Union sanctions on Belarus at a leaders’ summit on Thursday, urging other members of the bloc to also punish Turkey for its oil and gas drilling in the Mediterranean.
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 countries, to break the deadlock on Belarus sanctions.
“This is just inappropriate to have a situation without any reaction,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said of the Aug. 9 presidential election in Belarus that the West and the opposition say was rigged.
While Britain and Canada have imposed sanctions on Minsk to show support for pro-democracy demonstrations there, the impasse in the 27-nation EU, where decisions are taken by unanimity, has cost the bloc credibility, diplomats say.
A draft of the summit’s final statement 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.
President Alexander Lukashenko has denied his re-election was rigged and called the crisis the result of Western meddling.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades made no comment as he arrived on Thursday for the two-day meeting - but won public support from Austria’s leader, who chided others for not supporting Nicosia.
Turkey, both a candidate to join the EU candidate and a member of NATO, has slid towards authoritarianism under President Tayyip Erdogan but remains a strategically-located partner that the EU cannot ignore.
“The European Union finally has to show President 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 on Thursday, Anastasiades was defiant, accusing Turkey of “gunboat diplomacy” and of 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. Cyprus wants the EU to approve sanctions on Turkish drilling ships.
Erdogan, meanwhile, sent a letter to all EU leaders except Greece and Cyprus, urging the bloc to treat Ankara fairly and blaming Athens and Nicosia for tensions in contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
In a sign that the diplomatic stand-off is easing at least between Athens and Ankara, NATO announced on Thursday that the two alliance members had set up a “military de-confliction mechanism” to avoid accidental clashes at sea.
GUARANTEES TO CYPRUS?
Germany has pushed back against the imposition of EU sanctions on Turkey, fearing it will disrupt efforts to cool tensions with Greece.
Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed she was “committed to finding a peaceful solution”, while French President Emmanuel Macron said EU solidarity with Cyprus was “non-negotiable”. But neither of the EU’s two most powerful leaders suggested a way out of the impasse.
Weakened in foreign policy by Britain’s exit last January from the EU, the bloc is being pulled in different directions by France’s tough stance on Turkey and Germany’s push for dialogue.
The EU sees itself as a beacon of democracy and human rights, eager to sway international events through “soft power”. But its rule of unanimity for foreign policy decisions and its strained relationship with Turkey have raised questions about the bloc’s ability to exert influence.
EU diplomats say a possible solution to the standstill on Belarus could involve guarantees to Cyprus of tough sanctions on Turkey in the future if it continues with drilling activities in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.