Will Turkey’s drilling activities trigger EU sanctions?

Special Will Turkey’s drilling activities trigger EU sanctions?
Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez waves to the drilling ship ‘Yavuz’ which will search for oil and gas off Cyprus, at the port of Dilovasi, outside Istanbul. (AFP/File)
Updated 25 November 2019

Will Turkey’s drilling activities trigger EU sanctions?

Will Turkey’s drilling activities trigger EU sanctions?
  • Oil issue clouds future of Cyprus and Ankara’s commitment to holding back migrants, Daesh

ANKARA: Amid a serious confrontation between Brussels and Ankara about the country’s drilling program in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey kicked off the fourth round of drilling in the region on Nov. 23.

“We will keep drilling until we find oil,” the country’s energy minister, Fatih Donmez, said.

But the zone, which is believed to have rich hydrocarbon reserves, mostly clashes with the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) declared by Turkish Cyprus.

Turkey’s presence in waters off the south of Cyprus with its own drilling vessels has irked Brussels and is deemed “illegal” by Washington.

Whether these renewed activities in waters off northeastern Cyprus may result in a wave of sanctions against Turkish companies is now the big question.

The sanctions consist of a travel ban to the EU and asset freezes on people and entities.

In early November, EU foreign ministers adopted a mechanism to sanction individuals or entities involved in “unauthorized drilling activities” in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In a bid to open five new deep-sea wells by next year, Turkey is currently conducting hydrocarbon exploration activities in the area with two drilling vessels, while Greek Cyprus recently allowed international energy companies, like France’s Total and Italy’s Eni, to extract gas in the same area with the full support of the EU and US.

As for the sanctions discussed by the EU in November, Gallia Lindenstrauss, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said they were to target specific individuals and legal entities related to Turkish violations of the Cypriot EEZ.

“Such sanctions are not what you would call ‘biting’ sanctions, and I do not expect them to cause a reverse in the Turkish position,” she told Arab News.

However, Nicolò Sartori, an energy and defense analyst at Rome’s Institute for International Affairs, doesn’t believe EU sanctions on drilling players — i.e. ship companies and owners — are likely to discourage Turkish activities, which are more politics-based rather than business and economic-based. 

“I think that the only way to solve the issue is to find a political compromise on Cyprus, even though I am afraid that in these conditions a solution as such is quite unrealistic,” he told Arab News. 

The simmering Cypriot conflict is still a hot topic for any drilling attempt from the Turkish side.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is also trying to use his leverage. Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders will meet on Monday to restart reunification talks, and energy is set to be high on the table. Ankara does not support the talks.

Turkish Cypriots claim that the offshore hydrocarbon and oil resources of the island should be jointly owned by Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which will provide both communities with economic benefits.

For Lindenstrauss, “resolving the Cyprus issue has long been on the agenda of the international community, and there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to resolve it. The good thing about these past attempts is that many of the parameters of resolving the conflict have been determined.”

“Also, the more aggressive stance of Turkey might push the Greek Cypriots to compromise on the issue of the continued presence of small Turkish forces on the island — if Turkey is circling the island with its forces, and clearly the Turkish navy is ready to act at any time, the presence of Turkish forces on the island seems mainly symbolic. This will be a hard compromise for the Greek Cypriots, but this is an area in which the Turks have been very adamant,” she said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently threatened to send captured Daesh suspects to Europe if Brussels adopted sanctions over drilling activities.

“You should reevaluate your approach toward Turkey, which has so many Daesh members in its prisons and also in Syria. These doors can be opened and Daesh people can be sent to you. Don’t try to intimidate Turkey about the developments in Cyprus,” he said.

There are believed to be 1,180 Daesh members in Turkish prisons.

Mona Sukkarieh, a political risk consultant and co-founder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives, said no designations have been made so far about potential sanctions, but the legal framework made adopting such measures possible in future.

Sukkarieh thinks the EU decision did not come suddenly, and some Europeans are indeed conflicted between protecting the rights of an EU member state and European interests in general, and their position vis-à-vis Turkey, which, despite everything, remains a NATO partner and an important player in the Levant.

“The EU has repeatedly warned Turkey over the past two years to stop exploratory activities offshore Cyprus, but Turkey is defiant and considers that it is acting within its rights,” she told Arab News. 

Turkey’s measures do not come as a surprise for Sukkarieh, who underlined that Turkish authorities usually announce their intentions in advance.

“Since 2008, these measures have been gradual in nature and consistent with their announced objectives: Ankara started by sending warships to monitor, sometimes even harass, surveyors, then they moved to conducting seismic surveys.

“In 2018, the Turks prevented an Eni-commissioned drillship from reaching its drilling destination. And, more recently, they initiated drilling operations in areas that are either claimed by Turkey as being part of its continental shelf or in blocs awarded to Turkey’s main oil exploration company, Turkish Petroleum, by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, some of which overlap with blocs delineated by the Republic of Cyprus.”