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EU halts planned sanctions on Turkey in indication of thawing tensions

As diplomatic relations warm, European Union calls off sanctioning members of Turkey's state-owned energy company
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a meeting with EU Council President Charles Michel in Brussels (Reuters)

The European Union has halted plans to blacklist senior executives at Turkey's state-owned oil and gas company, in a sign that the body is easing some pressure on Ankara in the wake of a diplomatic offensive.

EU leaders in December had proposed asset freezes and travel bans for executives at the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) over Turkey's "unauthorised drilling activities" for natural gas in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean, although they did not specify individuals.

The EU had also agreed to weigh tougher economic sanctions at a summit on 25-26 March, after a difficult year in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed publicly his hope that protests in France would topple Emmanuel Macron, the French president.

However, four diplomats told Reuters that the move would no longer be going ahead.

"Work has stopped on additional blacklistings of Turkish individuals, and we are not talking of economic sanctions anymore," one EU diplomat told Reuters.

A second EU diplomat said the work "never really took off", and a third said "the diplomatic track is being prioritised".

A more constructive tone from Erdogan this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's support for a more conciliatory approach and the first direct talks between old foes Turkey and Greece in five years have all helped to change the mood.

The new administration of US President Joe Biden has also urged Brussels not to impose sanctions at a time when Turkey, a Nato ally and EU candidate country, appears more willing to compromise, European and US diplomats said.

Diplomatic offensive

Diplomats say a video conference between Erdogan and the head of the European Commission on 9 January, followed by Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's face-to-face talks with the EU foreign policy chief and separately with Nato's secretary-general marked the change in Turkish diplomacy.

The EU blacklisted two TPAO executives in February 2020, including the company's vice president Mehmet Ferruh Akalin. After the EU leaders' December decision, the bloc was set to sanction more board members, including TPAO's chairman, Melih Han Bilgin, an EU diplomat said.

Ankara has denied any wrongdoing and considered the proposed sanctions to be biased and unfair.

Greece and Cyprus, strongly backed by France, wanted to punish Turkey for what they see as provocative oil and gas exploration by Turkish vessels in disputed waters. Ankara says the activities are taking place in its own territorial waters.

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The EU also accuses Erdogan of eroding democracy and destroying independent courts and media.

But Merkel, who is expected to step down later this year after 16 years as German leader, favoured an approach that prioritises EU investment in Turkey, and both Macron and Greece came on side, the diplomats said.

A report on relations with Turkey commissioned by EU leaders that was originally expected to list the disagreements over energy, human rights and migration, will now be neutral in tone, they said.

A demand by a Turkish prosecutor to ban the pro-Kurdish HDP party is unlikely to revive any talk of sanctions, although it may be discussed by the EU, one diplomat added.

Erdogan's foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin held a meeting in Ankara last week with French and German political advisers. Erdogan is also expected to hold a video conference with the leaders of the EU Council and Commission on Friday.

Cavusoglu said this month that the change of tone was sincere and that Ankara wanted the EU to reciprocate: "We are focusing on... how we can work together."

Ankara wants progress on the right for Turks to travel visa-free to the EU, an upgrade of its trade agreement and recognition of its claims to hydrocarbons off its maritime shelf.

The EU is also expected to provide fresh funds from 2022 for the four million refugees that Turkey hosts.

However, the warmer mood does not mean anything has been resolved, the EU diplomats said, adding that Turkey must meet required targets to make progress in its long-stalled EU membership bid.

The EU's top foreign affairs official for Turkey, Angelina Eichhorst, said the bloc needed to manage Ankara's expectations.

"Some may think that because of a few actions, we can go high again," she said last month.

"We have to calibrate this, because there are processes that do take time."