The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell expressed his “strong solidarity” with Cyprus on a visit to the island amid increasing tensions in the eastern Mediterranean fuelled by Turkish pursuit of contested gas reserves.
Turkey has riled the EU member state by drilling for gas in disputed waters off the island, which has been partitioned between the internationally recognised government of Nicosia and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state since 1974.
Cyprus accused Turkey of “gunboat diplomacy” on Thursday and said Ankara had used the cover of the pandemic to pursue its gas claims.
“At the time of an unprecedented pandemic . . . despite repeated warnings by the European Union, Turkey has opted to proceed with its sixth illegal drilling in less than a year, violating the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus and further destabilising the region, threatening peace and stability,” Cypriot foreign ministers Nikos Christodoulides told journalists.
Mr Borrell said that next steps by the EU would be discussed by foreign ministers when they meet on July 13th, following a joint appeal to Turkey last month to reverse its escalating “illegal activities in the Eastern Mediterranean”.
“Let me underline that the European Union is firmly supportive of the Republic of Cyprus and its sovereignty and sovereign rights. My message is a message of strong solidarity,” the foreign affairs chief said, in one of his first international engagements since the relaxation of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Cyprus concerns, your concerns, are the European Union’s concerns . . . on the Turkish drilling, the European Union is continually demonstrating its unwavering support to and solidarity with Cyprus.”
Mr Borrell warned that dialogue with Turkey was needed “to try to avoid an escalation that could be very damaging to all of us”.
Tensions between Ankara and Brussels flared earlier this year when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dropped border controls with Greece and urged migrants and refugees to make a break for the EU, in a power play that broke with a 2016 accord that Turkey would hold back the flow of people in exchange for support.
Ankara’s increasingly assertive foreign policy has made it a player in both the Syrian conflict and in Libya’s civil war, where it intervened to shore up the Government of National Accord (GNA) after it signed a maritime agreement allowing Turkey drilling rights near Crete, against the opposition of Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the European Union.
The dispute over the drilling off Cyprus dates to Nicosia’s discovery of offshore gas in 2011. Turkey, which does not have diplomatic relations with the internationally-recognised Cypriot government, opposed its granting of licences to multinational companies for oil and gas research.
Ankara argues that some areas in which Nicosia has operations are either on the Turkish continental shelf, or in areas where the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state has rights over any finds.