BRUSSELS — Turkey’s relationship with the West suffered a fresh blow on Monday when the European Union decided to suspend contacts between high-level officials, as well as to pull financial aid, in response to Turkey’s gas exploration in Cypriot national waters.
European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels said they would suspend about $164 million in aid to Turkey and shelve talks on an aviation accord. They also asked the European Investment Bank to review its lending to the country, which amounted to nearly $434 million in 2018.
Turkey has been benefiting from European Union funding as part of its now-stalled bid to join the bloc, while the aviation agreement that was under negotiation would have led to more passengers using Turkish airports, in particular the main international airport in Istanbul, as a transit hub.
The European Union measures came just days after the country’s relationship with the United States took a hit, with the first shipment of a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system to Turkey, a NATO member. Washington had warned that it would penalize Turkey for the purchase, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went ahead with it anyway.
The measures announced on Monday by European foreign ministers stopped short of all-out sanctions against Turkish companies involved in drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, one of the bloc’s most strategically sensitive corners and a flash point in relations between European and Middle Eastern powers.
But they come as Turkey’s economy is struggling and could face painful, protracted economic sanctions from the European Union and the United States.
Cyprus has been partitioned between the ethnically Greek south and ethnically Turkish north since Turkey invaded in 1974. The administration of northern Cyprus is recognized only by Ankara.
Turkey said that Cyprus, a European Union member, and the internationally recognized government that controls most of the island, does not have rights to unilaterally explore for gas. It says Cyprus must follow a plan proposed by the Turkish Cypriot leader to share gas revenue, and it claims to have the right to carry out exploratory missions itself, without approval from the government in the capital, Nicosia.
Multiple peacemaking efforts have failed to resolve the Cyprus conflict or unify the island, and the large gas find offshore has only made matters worse.
This month, Turkey sent a second ship to drill for gas off the coast of Cyprus, causing outrage in Nicosia, which successfully lobbied Brussels for support. The European Union labeled the Turkish exploration in Cypriot waters illegal before announcing the specific measures against Ankara on Monday.
“The council deplores that, despite the European Union’s repeated calls to cease its illegal activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey continued its drilling operations west of Cyprus and launched a second drilling operation northeast of Cyprus within Cypriot territorial waters,“ the foreign ministers said in a statement after meeting and adopting the measures late Monday.
The broader sea area around Cyprus — which washes the shores of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel — not only contains major natural gas deposits, but is also strategically important to the military forces of regional and world powers.
Cyprus is home to a permanent British military base, Russia has a major naval base on the Syrian shore less than 90 miles from the island, and naval forces from the United States and several other countries operate in or pass through Cypriot waters while on missions in Africa and the Middle East.
The European Union has a complex relationship with Turkey, as it relies on Ankara to manage the arrival of migrants to Greece’s borders, which double as frontiers for the entire bloc.
In 2016, as the refugee crisis fueled by the Syrian war continued, the European Union agreed to a deal under which Turkey would take back migrants and would in turn receive $6.6 billion in funding. The deal, criticized by migrant-rights organizations, is thought to have helped reduce the flow of people into Europe and ease the congestion at migrant arrival points in Greece and elsewhere.