French President Emmanuel Macron (R) welcomes Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L).

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LONDON — The European Union will not go as far as to impose sanctions on Turkey, one regional expert told CNBC, despite Ankara’s controversial activity in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Turkey, Greece and Cyprus have been at odds over the former’s exploration of energy resources in parts of Eastern Mediterranean waters that both Athens and Nicosia claim are part of their own territory. The countries and territories of this region include Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Libya.

The dispute, which goes back over four decades, has escalated in recent weeks. Turkey’s pursuit to expand its oil and gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean even resulted in a minor collision between two frigates last month.

Greece, increasingly angry at what it describes as “illegal” activity by Turkey, has called on its EU partners to impose “tough sanctions” on Ankara. EU leaders will be discussing the standoff between NATO members at an emergency meeting in two weeks’ time.

For its part, Turkey has claimed it has every right to prospect in the contested waters and accuses Greece of trying to grab an unfair share of maritime resources.

“Leaders cannot do anything else but reinstate their solidarity with Greece,” Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey, told CNBC earlier this month.

“Sanctions would not give much result here,” he said.

Turkey ‘willing to play hard ball’

Turkey’s economy has struggled in recent years and the global recession has added further pressure to the embattled nation. In addition, the political party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lost its traditional dominance in the country.

Vassilis Ntousas, a policy expert at Chatham House, told CNBC that Erdogan was looking to “cement” his legacy by adopting a more assertive regional policy.

He added that Turkey was looking “to play a stronger role in the region and it is willing to play hard ball.”

This is another occasion that forces the EU to think what a forward-looking relationship with Turkey would look like.

Vassilis Ntousas

policy expert at Chatham House

Turkish officials have asked the European Union to mediate the situation in an honest way, rather than siding with Greece and Cyprus, according to Euronews.

At a summit of south European countries on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the aim was “to rediscover the dialogue with Turkey, without naivety and in good faith.”

The relationship between Turkey and the EU has been tense at various times. In 2005, Ankara started negotiations to become an EU-member. The process was always expected to take a long time, but the talks were effectively frozen in 2018, after the EU said that Turkey was backsliding in democratic commitments, rule of law and fundamental rights.

Nonetheless, Turkey has played a vital role in the EU’s migrant policy. The 27-member bloc agreed in 2015 to disburse 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion) in exchange for Turkey to stem the flow of migrants into European territory.  

“This is another occasion that forces the EU to think what a forward-looking relationship with Turkey would look like,” Ntousas said.

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