Cyprus on Thursday defied rising pressure to approve EU sanctions on Belarus at a leaders’ summit, urging fellow European Union governments to also sanction Turkey over 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 members, to break the paralysis on Belarus sanctions.
“This is just inappropriate to have a situation [in the EU] without any reaction,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said of the August 9 presidential election in Belarus that the West and the opposition say was rigged.
While the United Kingdom and Canada have proceeded with sanctions on Minsk to show support for pro-democracy demonstrations there, the deadlock in the 27-country EU, where decisions are taken by unanimity, has cost the bloc credibility, diplomats said.
A draft final statement for the summit 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.
Wearing a face mask with the island of Cyprus embroidered in gold, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades did not stop to speak to reporters on arrival in Brussels but won public support from Austria, which chided fellow leaders for not supporting Nicosia.
A Cypriot diplomat, according to the Reuters news agency, said his country would stand firm against sanctions on Belarus.
Turkey, both an EU candidate country and NATO member, remains a strategically-located partner that the EU cannot ignore.
“The European Union finally has to show (Turkish) President (Tayyip) Erdogan where our red lines are,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “This means the termination of enlargement talks and sanctions.”
French President Emmanuel Macron warned as he arrived at the summit, that Europe’s solidarity with member states Greece and Cyprus in their stand-off with Turkey must be “non-negotiable”.
“When a member state of the European Union is attacked, threatened, when its territorial waters are not respected, it is the duty of Europeans to show solidarity and we will reiterate our support for Greece and Cyprus, but we must also find ways to re-engage in a demanding dialogue with Turkey.
“For me, these two cases are emblematic of what a re-thought, rigorous but also realistic neighbourhood policy is, that the European Union must have, which never compromises on issues of sovereignty, which never compromises on issues of values and law, but which seeks, with pragmatism and determination, to engage in a constructive dialogue.”
Earlier in a message marking Cyprus’s 60th anniversary of independence from Britain on Thursday, Anastasiades was defiant, accusing Turkey of “gunboat diplomacy” and 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 ahead of the EU gathering, where Cyprus wants the EU to approve sanctions on Turkish drilling ships.
Erdogan meanwhile sent a letter to all EU leaders except Greece and Cyprus, lobbying for the bloc to treat Ankara fairly and blaming Athens and Nicosia for the tensions in the contested waters of the Mediterranean.
The draft summit statement had no agreed line on Turkey, as Germany does not want to disrupt separate talks between Ankara and Athens, also over oil and gas drilling, by imposing EU sanctions.
Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed she was “committed to finding a peaceful solution to the tensions”, while French President Emmanuel Macron said EU solidarity with Cyprus was “non-negotiable”. But neither of the EU’s two most powerful leaders offered details of a way out of the impasse.
The economically powerful EU sees itself as a beacon of democracy and human rights, eager to influence international events through “soft power”. But its unanimity rule in making decisions on foreign policy and its strained relationship with Turkey have raised questions about the EU’s ability to exert influence.
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.
EU diplomats say a solution could involve a promise to Cyprus of tough sanctions on Turkey in the future.
“The idea is to threaten Turkey with retaliatory measures if it continues with drilling and other provocations in Cypriot and Greek waters,” a second senior EU diplomat said.
“This is meant to offer guarantees to Cyprus and convince Nicosia to lift its veto on Belarus sanctions.”
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