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Turkish-EU relations: Why won't the bloc take a hard line on Turkey?

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By Efi Koutsokosta
Turkish-EU relations: Why won't the bloc take a hard line on Turkey?
Copyright  Francisco Seco/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Another summit, another deadline for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but no real sanctions.

Last week's meeting left EU Leaders appearing divided over how to respond to Ankara's latest provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Germany, Spain, and Italy are three of the countries supporting a softer line, while France, Greece, and Cyprus want a tougher response, including sector-specific sanctions or an arms embargo on Turkey.

Why are Mediterranean countries split over Turkey though?

As is often the case with EU foreign policy, national interests generally trump everything else.

"Italy is the wild card. Italy's main focus is Libya," explained Michael Tanchum, Senior Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies.

The Italian energy company ENI controls 45 per cent of Italy's oil and gas production, he explained. All of Libya's natural gas goes to Italy. "So, ENI and Italy have a very strong interest in Libya and their interest is aligned with Turkey," said Tanchum.

One of the countries most concerned by agreements made with Turkey on illegal migration and drug trafficking is Malta, which goes some way to explain its softer line on the issue.

But what about Spain?

"One of Spain's largest concerns is that it has the largest exposure to Turkish debt," said Tanchum.

If the Turkish lira goes down and down and down, he explained, the country that will lose the most is Spain. "Spain has at least $63 billion debt exposure. That's more than France, Germany, Italy and the UK combined".

Taking a tougher line

Manfred Weber, who represents the European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, was disappointed by the outcome of last week's summit.

He now expects, however, that if Turkey doesn't respond to this opportunity for dialogue, then tougher sanctions should be imposed next March. He has argued that the credibility of the EU is at stake, and it can be remedied by changing how the EU operates.

"It's obvious that the unanimous decision-making process inside the European Council is blocking the whole power of the European Union, and that was the same on the Turkey case. Individual interests were blocking this general understanding to go further and that's the same for Belarus, the same for other issues," Weber told Euronews.

It's now up to the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, to present a new list of possible sanctions.

EU Leaders are also waiting for Joe Biden's inauguration so they can coordinate their actions with the backing of the US.