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EU warns Turkey over ‘illegal drilling activities’ off Cyprus

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The European Union on Tuesday criticized Turkey for its “illegal drilling activities” off Cyprus and warned of possible retaliation over the controversial gas exploration bid, the Euractiv news website reported.

Ministers from the 28 member states tasked the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, with preparing “appropriate measures” to hit back at Turkey — which could ultimately include sanctions against companies and individuals involved in the drilling.

Turkey launched a major naval exercise on Monday in a show of force that comes amid mounting tensions over its plans to start drilling off Cyprus.

The discovery of huge gas reserves in the Mediterranean has fuelled a race to tap underwater resources and triggered an escalating dispute between Turkey and EU member Cyprus, which also plans to ramp up its exploratory activities in the area.

European affairs ministers from the 28 states discussed Turkey at a meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday, lamenting Ankara’s “deeply worrying backsliding” on human rights and that it “continues to move further away from the European Union.”

“The Council expresses serious concerns over Turkey’s current illegal drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and deplores that Turkey has not yet responded to the European Union’s repeated calls to cease such activities,” the ministers said in their formal conclusions from the meeting.

“The EU will closely monitor developments and stands ready to respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus. The Council invites the Commission and the European External Action Service to submit options for appropriate measures without delay.”

Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a written statement, slamming the council’s conclusions.

“These conclusions show how far the EU is from understanding the steps taken by Turkey despite the conditions it finds itself in and the challenges it faces,” the statement read, adding that the EU made a “grave mistake” in 2004 by accepting Cyprus as a member.

“For the sake of carrying on with this mistake, the EU is now demeaning Turkey-EU relations to the Cyprus issue and becoming a hostage of it.”

“The EU has acted as a bargain-based interests-group rather than a community upholding principles and values. This is contrary to the EU’s founding philosophy.”

The EU in May urged Turkey to show restraint and respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus over the energy dispute, while the United States also asked Ankara to reconsider.

Turkey says its actions abide by international law and that it is drilling inside its continental shelf, but it does not recognize Cyprus as a sovereign state with its exclusively Greek Cypriot administration.

Earlier on Tuesday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras used a phone call with European Council President Donald Tusk to demand that the EU step up its response after Ankara defied calls for the drilling to stop.

In theory, Turkey is applying to join the EU, but accession talks have been frozen and at Tuesday’s meeting the ministers said that “no further work towards the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen.”

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