(Bloomberg) -- The European Union blacklisted two Turkish nationals as retaliation over Ankara’s energy drilling off Cyprus in a move that has more political symbolism than economic punch.
The EU asset freezes and travel bans on the two people, whom the bloc plans to identify later on Thursday, make good on its months-long vow to counter Turkey’s oil and natural-gas exploration in waters that are part of the exclusive economic zone of member country Cyprus. The sanctions also are the first of their kind in response to the actions of a nation seeking to join the EU.
At the same time, the decision by EU governments in Brussels stops short of targeting any Turkish companies. This reflects a desire to avoid antagonizing a key ally in the fight to prevent Middle East migration, particularly from war-torn Syria.
“Hanging in the balance is a possible influx of Syrian refugees into Europe,” said Michael Emerson of the CEPS think tank in the Belgian capital. “It’s a highly sensitive political issue in the EU.”
Relations between the EU and Turkey have been deteriorating since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to a failed coup attempt in mid-2016 by unleashing a widespread crackdown on political opponents.
Ties soured further in 2018 when the Turkish navy prevented drilling by Italy-based Eni SpA in Cypriot waters and again late last year, when Turkey carried out a military operation in northern Syria to carve out a buffer zone and struck a controversial accord with Libya on their maritime boundary.
The acrimony has halted negotiations on a bid for EU membership by Turkey, which has been seeking to join the bloc since the 1980s and began accession talks in 2005. The energy-exploration tensions are a reminder of the most basic European disagreement with Turkey: its occupation of the northern part of Cyprus since a 1974 invasion.
Nonetheless, the EU is counting on Erdogan to uphold a 2016 agreement that stemmed a politically explosive flood of Mideast refugees into the bloc via Greece and European leaders are keen to keep channels of communication with Ankara open. As part of the migrant accord, the EU pledged 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) to help Turkey handle migrants.
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