European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels for a two-day summit amid internal disputes that threaten the bloc’s coronavirus recovery package and weaken its ability to respond to crises involving neighboring Turkey and Belarus.
The first evening of the extraordinary summit that started on October 1 centered on tensions between Turkey and EU members Greece and Cyprus over maritime borders and energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
Relations with Ankara deteriorated in July when Turkey sent a research ship with a naval escort to work in contested waters, with Athens responding with war games backed by France.
Turkey and Greece have since agreed to resume long-stalled talks, and European Council President Charles Michel warned in his summit invitation that "all options remain on the table" if Ankara does not engage constructively in talks.
This could include tough economic sanctions against Turkey, but EU officials insist that the focus for now is on trying to find a diplomatic solution.
In a statement ahead of the summit on October 1, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said alliance members Greece and Turkey have agreed to set up a hot line to help stop tensions in the eastern Mediterranean from boiling over into military conflict.
"This safety mechanism can help to create the space for diplomatic efforts to address the underlying dispute," Stoltenberg said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her insistence on a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
"I will point out that our relation to Turkey is, of course, very complex," Merkel said, highlighting that the country is a NATO member and hosts a large number of refugees.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, however, called for ending EU accession talks with Turkey and for imposing sanctions on the country.
"The European Union has to finally show [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan clear red lines," he said upon arrival at the summit.
Erdogan nonetheless lashed out at the EU as the talks began, claiming the bloc had been taken "hostage” by “spoiled” Greece and Cyprus.
Meanwhile, EU leaders confronted Cyprus, which has been blocking sanctions over the political crisis in Belarus, insisting the bloc must also agree to impose sanctions on Turkey over its controversial oil and gas exploration activities.
Reuters quoted a Cypriot diplomat as saying on October 1 that his country will stand firm at the meeting.
"To release the Belarus file, we have to have an agreement on our proposals as well," the diplomat said, adding that Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades met Charles Michel, who will chair the two-day summit, to lay out Nicosia's position.
"I imagine there will be a long discussion in the European Council. I'm not excluding that something might come out of it but, as of now, I wouldn't put money on having a happy outcome."
EU officials have drawn up a blacklist of 40 Belarus officials seen as responsible for a crackdown in the country following an election in August that the West and the opposition say was rigged.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said he expected EU leaders to find a "principled solution" on Belarus at the summit.
The recent flare-up of fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh are also set to color the talks on Turkey.
French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Ankara of "reckless and dangerous" statements backing Baku, drawing a sharp response from Turkish officials.
European Union leaders are also expected to address an internal argument about tying access to EU funds to a member state's respect for the rule of law -- a proposal opposed by Hungary and Poland.
The leaders have already agreed in principle to build a 750 billion euro ($881 billion) economic recovery package, to be backed by a long-term EU budget totaling 1.8 trillion euros ($2.1 trillion).
In a September 30 report, which could have repercussions for negotiations on the distribution mechanism, the European Commission criticized judiciary reforms by the Hungarian and Polish governments as a "major source of controversy" and "serious concern."
The report about failings in the rule of law across the bloc also said that, in Hungary, the prosecution of high-level corruption "remains very limited," while the absence of legislation and transparency in the distribution of state advertising has opened the door for the government to "exert indirect political influence over the media."
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga dismissed the report as "flawed" and "unfounded."
Warsaw and Budapest have repeatedly clashed with EU leaders over their moves to increase state control of the judiciary, media, nongovernmental organizations, and academia.