EU punishes Turkey for Cyprus drilling

EU will halt high-level dialogue with Turkey, suspend talks over aviation deal, cut 145.8 million euros in pre-accession financial funds allocated for 2020.

BRUSSELS - European Union decisions to curb contacts and funding for Turkey will not affect Ankara's determination to drill for gas and oil off Cyprus and Turkey planned to send a fourth ship to the area, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

Turkey has told energy firms not to work with the Cypriot government and sent ships to drill off the island, divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a Greek-inspired coup.

EU foreign ministers on Monday suspended negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement and agreed not to hold the Association Council and further meetings of the EU-Turkey high-level dialogues for the time being.

It also endorsed a proposal to cut 145.8 million euros ($164 million) in pre-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020 and invited the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey, notably with regard to sovereign-backed lending.

"The decisions will not affect in the slightest our country's determination to continue hydrocarbon activities in the Eastern Mediterranean," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.

The EU's failure to mention Turkish Cypriots in its decisions "showed how biased and partisan the EU is on the subject of Cyprus," the ministry said in a statement.

The dispute stems from overlapping claims to regional waters by Turkey and Cyprus, linked to the 45-year-old split of the island between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and Ankara's rejection of agreements Cyprus has reached with other Mediterranean states on maritime economic zones.

Old dispute, new tension

Nicosia also rejected an offer by the breakaway, Turkish-occupied north for talks on sharing gas reserves, calling it a thinly-disguised attempt to divert attention away from the need to resume peace talks for a comprehensive settlement to the islands' division.

"Mr Akinci's proposal seeks to deflect away from the real issue, which is how to solve the Cyprus problem," said Cypriot government official Vassilis Palmas, referring to Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.

The EU last month warned Turkey it could face sanctions if it did not cease what the bloc called "illegal" drilling in Cyprus's exclusive economic zone. Last week, diplomats began discussing what measures to impose.

Discovery of hydrocarbons has added a new twist to one of the oldest conflicts on the United Nations agenda, spanning more than half a century.

Cyprus has been divided between the Republic of Cyprus and a northern third under Turkish military control since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup by a Greek military junta.

The tensions over gas drilling are also likely related to the collapse of peace talks in 2017, experts say. While negotiations to reunify the island have not restarted, Cyprus has moved to start gas and oil exploration by issuing licences.

Turkey has no diplomatic relations with the internationally recognised Cypriot government and is the only country which recognises the breakaway state in the north which calls itself the 'Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus'.

Cyprus says Turkey's drilling operations are contrary to international law and that decisions on hydrocarbons are its sovereign right.

Fourth ship

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu dismissed the EU steps, telling a news conference in Skopje: "There is no need to take it very seriously. These are simple things. These aren't things that will impact us."

He said that Turkey will continue drilling if the Cypriot government does not accept the Turkish Cypriot cooperation proposal.

"We have three ships there, God willing we will send a fourth ship to the eastern Mediterranean as soon as possible. Let them understand that they cannot deal with Turkey with such methods," he added.

The Turkish ship Fatih started drilling off western Cyprus in May. A second drilling ship, Yavuz, arrived off the northeastern coast this month.

Turkish seismic research vessel Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa is currently south of Cyprus, while the fourth ship will also be a seismic research vessel called Oruc Reis, Turkey's energy minister said.

An EU diplomat told Reuters Ankara could lose some 150 million of 400 million euros the bloc had earmarked for 2020 for everything from political reforms to agriculture projects to help Turkey prepare for eventual EU membership.

The EU had been due to give Turkey 4.45 billion euros between 2014 and 2020, but it cut and suspended some funding last year. It has frozen membership talks and negotiations on upgrading its customs union with Turkey, accusing President Tayyip Erdogan of grave violations of human rights.