Cyprus and Greece take slightly different approaches to Turkish threat

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Cyprus and Greece have always been known within the European Council for coming to meetings with a united front on the majority of issues. This has always been the unofficial policy between the two countries, with telephone calls between the Greek Prime Minister and the Cypriot President being a customary ahead of nearly all European Summits.

Interestingly, however, in the effort to reduce the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean after a long period of heated tensions with Turkey, Greece has been less eager than its close ally, and fellow Greek-speaking nation Cyrpus, to impose sanctions against the Turks.

Cyprus has continued to take a hard line against Ankara and has pushed Brussels, as well as the rest of the EU’s members, to impose harsh sanctions against individuals and entities involved in the illegal drillings in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone.

Taken at face value, Cyprus actually has a very salient point. Turkey may have pulled a research vessel from the Greek continental shelf, but it continues unimpeded illegal drilling activities on its continental shelf. As a matter of fact, the NAVTEX for the Turks’ activities has been extended until at least mid-October, which prompted the Cypriot government to demand that the EU take immediate action against Turkey.

Up to this point, the EU has only opted for very limited sanctions against two individuals involved in the illegal drilling, a feckless action that has changed nothing in Turkey’s attitude. On the contrary, the Turks have insisted that they will not be “imprisoned” by its coastline or internationally recognized land and maritime borders, rhetoric that has raised deep, and legitimate, concerns in Greece and Cyprus.

Cyprus had blocked the EU’s targeted sanctions against Belarusian officials in order to show that the EU takes the Turkish threat as seriously as rejecting a rigged election in Belarus. European officials were, however, taken off guard by how harsh the Cypriot stance was on the matter, with Nicosia saying it would not accept double standards and a failure to act against Turkey’s policies when they continue to violate the sovereign rights of an EU member.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (R) leave after a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus. Pompeo’s visit aimed to de-escalate a confrontation between Greece and Turkey over energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. EPA-EFE//PETROS KARADJIAS

Within this framework, Greece’s position has been more delicate. A champion for a more decisive EU stance against Turkey while the tensions were mounting, Greece was a protagonist in the informal meeting of the Foreign Affairs Ministers held in Berlin in late August which finalized the Eu’s list of potential systemic sanctions that could be used against Turkey.

Ever since Turkey pulled the Oruc Reis research vessel from the Greek continental shelf, however, Greece has been sending signals to Ankara that the Turkish government should give diplomacy another chance. Greece has not pushed hard for the activation of sanctions, but it wants a clear mention that the list of sanctions would be ready and on the table should Turkey abandon the path of diplomacy and return to new provocative actions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In this spirit, Greece is preparing to relaunch exploratory talks with Turkey, which have been frozen since 2016. The talks are supposed to be held in Istanbul, but the Turkish side has yet to provide the Greek government with a final date.

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