Tensions Rise Between EU & Turkey Over Drilling, Election

Supporters of Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), rally in the city Monday night. Turkey’s state-run news agency says the country’s highest electoral body has ruled for a redo of the Istanbul mayoral election after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party challenged the legitimacy of the vote that narrowly favored Imamoglu, an opposition candidate. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

(CN) — Relations between the European Union and Turkey are becoming more bitter after Turkey sent a ship to drill for natural gas and oil in disputed waters off the island of Cyprus, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the election for mayor of Istanbul, which his party lost, needs to be done over.

The moves by Turkey further eroded relations with the EU.

In 2005, Turkey and the EU began formal talks about Turkey’s entry into the EU bloc, but those talks have broken down and are on hold.

Besides blasting Turkey’s bid to drill off the coast of Cyprus, EU leaders are expressing outrage at the rejection of election results for the mayor of Istanbul. The country’s election board on Monday ruled that a March 31 election won by opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was seriously flawed and needs to be done over.

European leaders have become increasingly critical of Erdoğan’s authoritarian government and said Monday’s ruling leaves no doubt that Turkey should not be allowed to join the EU.

“This outrageous decision highlights how Erdogan’s Turkey is drifting toward a dictatorship,” said Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of liberals in the European Parliament. He called it “impossible” to hold talks about Turkey’s entry into the EU “under such leadership.”

In this acrimonious climate, the dispute over drilling in the eastern Mediterranean Sea seems likely to further heighten tensions.

Cyprus is in the midst of a drilling boom after large offshore mineral deposits were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Oil companies, led by Exxon, France’s Total and Italy’s Eni, are working in those waters.

But the mineral wealth lying under the seabed is reigniting tensions on Cyprus, an island that has been politically and ethically split since a 1974 Greek-backed coup. After intervention by the Turkish army, the island was split between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots.

With the backing of Turkey, the northeastern portion of Cyprus declared itself an independent state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. But no country other than Turkey recognizes Northern Cyprus.

The rest of the island falls under the Republic of Cyprus, which became an EU member in 2000. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus.

Both Turkey and Cyprus claim sovereignty over offshore areas around the island.

On Friday, Turkey announced that the drilling ship Fatih (“Conqueror”) was beginning to explore for hydrocarbons at a site off the western coast of Cyprus.

Cyprus is calling the move illegal and was preparing to issue international arrest warrants for the ship’s crew. The island nation charges that Turkey is violating international laws by drilling inside its waters.

The foreign ministry of Cyprus also accused Turkey of seeking to undermine efforts to restart talks to reunify the divided country. Reunification talks, sponsored by the United Nations, have failed so far.

The EU and the United States also condemned the move by Turkey and demanded it stop the drilling operation.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, called Turkey’s move a “grave concern.” The EU vowed to “respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus.”

“This step is highly provocative and risks raising tensions in the region,” said Morgan Ortagus, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman.

But Turkey insists the drilling operation is legal. Turkey has not signed the UN’s International Convention on the Law of the Sea and claims an exclusive economic zone that stretches 200 miles from its shores.  

“The legitimate rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus over the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean are not debatable,” Erdoğan said in Ankara on Monday during a NATO meeting.

Turkey claims the Cypriot government’s offshore gas exploration infringes on its rights and those of breakaway Turkish Cypriots to the island’s mineral reserves. Cyprus says all potential gas proceeds will be shared equitably across the island after a reunification accord.

In recent years, Turkey has been marginalized by other countries seeking to exploit the mineral riches of the eastern Mediterranean. In January, several Mediterranean nations, including Israel, Egypt, Italy and Greece, excluded Turkey from a new alliance they are forming to market natural gas extracted from the eastern Mediterranean.

At the same time, Turkey is pushing to increase its domestic energy production and has begun to look offshore to achieve this objective. It imports most of its oil and natural gas from Russia, Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan.

“In a region already ravaged by several conflicts, new tensions over resources are bad news not only for the countries there, but also for the whole of Europe, from the point of view of energy security and security in general,” analysts with the German Marshall Fund, a think tank, wrote in a recent paper.

The analysts, Kadri Tastan and Tobias Kutschka, said squabbles over offshore reserves risk undermining peace and economic development.

Turkey has used its military to enforce its territorial claims. In 2018, Turkey sent warships to block drilling operations by the Italian company Eni.  

“Competition for the exploitation of newly discovered resources off Cyprus may create new conflicts rather than make it easier to resolve existing ones,” they wrote.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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