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13 July, 2024
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Sanctions unfeasible and ineffective

It does not honor any Member State to compare the case of Belarus with Turkey, Nathalie Tocci, a close advisor to Josep Borrell, tells Kathimerini Cyprus in an exclusive interview


Nathalie Tocci was a close adviser to former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, during the years when the Cyprus Problem came – according to many - closer than ever to a solution. Today, she is a close advisor to Josep Borrell and, having monitored the Cyprus Problem for many years and having played a central role in the effort to formulate a European strategy for foreign policy, she has a strong view not only on Cyprus but also on the Greek-Turkish conflict. At the same time, she takes a critical approach to the efforts exerted by Athens and Nicosia to link sanctions against Turkey with those against Belarus.

Tocci spoke to Kathimerini Cyprus via Skype from Rome, where she spearheads the Istituto Affari Internazionali on the current crisis and the prospects attempts by the EU and NATO to de-escalate. Tocci stresses that sanctions are an ineffective tool, as what matters are clear and comprehensive relationships. She remains pessimistic about the Cyprus Problem since 2004, and believes that any prospect for a solution requires a change of approach on the part of both Nicosia and Ankara.

At the end of her interview, Nathalie Tocci wanted to clarify to ‘K’ that the positions expressed are her personal views and not the official position of the EU.

What do we do about Turkey? The argument from the Greek and the Cypriot side is that lenience has led to the situation that we see today, and sanctions need to be put on the table.

I would say that we clearly need to look at what the goal is. And the goal is obviously that of deescalating the situation, but also what Greece and the RoC want, to stop Turkey from conducting aggressive, assertive policies, positions, actions in the region. So that's the goal.

The question is what is the most effective way to achieve this. And indeed the argument in Athens and Nicosia is that we have to be assertive, we have to be forceful and have to have a policy based on sanctions. I am personally extremely skeptical of this view. Taking as a goal a change in Turkey's behavior, there are several reasons for my skepticism.

Reason number one is that an assertive EU position, which means meaningful sanctions from Brussels, would require the consensus of 27 member states. And we know how difficult it is to achieve that kind of concession for meaningful sanctions. I'm not talking about putting individuals on some sort of list as persona non grata. I'm talking about meaningful sanctions that hurt economically not only Turkey but inevitably also the EU. 

One may say that it has been done before, in the case of Russia. Well yes, we did, but we didn't do it when Russia annexed Crimea. Which was frankly speaking a far more consequential action than what Turkey is currently doing in the East Med. It is acquisition of territory by force. You can't get any more blatant in terms of violations of international law and even then the sanctions that the EU imposed on Russia were not particularly significant. The real change on EU policy sanctions on Russia came after the shooting of MH17. Something like this creates an emotional shock so even if there are resistances based on rational economic calculations by different member states, there is a big event that overrides everything else and you get a consensus.

At the moment this is not happening in the East Med. And I would say thank God. There has not been anything so extra ordinary, such as a Turkish attack that kills civilians, that would change the terms of the debate in the EU that could eventually lead to meaningful sanctions, and as I said, it hopefully won't.

My second point is that even if the EU were to impose meaningful sanctions on Turkey, I don't think this would change Turkey's behaviour. Because ultimately, and this is surely something that Athens and Nicosia understand far better than anyone else, this is not a conflict about economics, about energy. It is a conflict about sovereignty, identity and security and these are all issues that trump economic pain. So I don't think Turkey’s behaviour will change as a consequence of sanctions imposed by the EU.

I would add on top of this a consideration that does not have to do with Turkey as such, but with all of the surrounding countries of the European Union. The EU has been known to have influence, having soft power on its surrounding regions. This happened partly through the enlargement process, and partly through neighborhood polices. I can't think of any country in the neighborhood on which the EU had a positive influence through an exclusive use of the stick.

These three reasons are what lead me to say that I think that if the goal is to change Turkey's behaviour, the strategy that must be pursued is not one of sanctions.

The president of the European Council said the other day that you need both tools to encourage cooperation and tools to deal with lack of cooperation. It is necessary for both to at least be formulated and clear for when something like this happens. The stick should be clear for when the line is crossed.

In principle, I see the argument that you need to have both the carrot and the stick. In practice I think that it is a very slippery slope to outline the possibility of sanctions where there is not an agreement among member states to go in this direction.

Firstly, if what line is crossed exactly? If Turkey does what would sanctions be imposed? Where is that red line? We know from other precedents, just think about Obama and the war in Syria, just how dreadful it is for the reputation of an actor, in this case the EU, if you even hypothetically set a red line, and then it is crossed and then you do nothing about it.

But can't we say that that line has been crossed when it comes to sovereignty? Even if we were to say that in the case of Cyprus sovereignty is contested, we can't say that about Greece.

The point is that those sovereign rights are contested by Turkey. One could get into an argument of saying that this is a question of right and wrong. So Greece has a position and the EU supports that position but Turkey contests it. So it still is a conflict about sovereignty. And all conflicts about sovereignty are in my view murky conflicts.

You talked about the problem in finding a common ground among all member states. The MED7 is happening in Corsica. Can you see these countries finding joint interests and approaches? Could the big countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Greece align in a way that affects discussions in the European Council?

I think that actually within that group there are lots of differences. I think that the plan that Greece and Cyprus position are motivated by reasons that we just discussed. This is about security and sovereignty. I would say that France's position and clash with Turkey has only marginally to do with all this. I think this is something which is far more rooted in different positions on Middle Eastern politics and particularly the role of political Islam. They are definitely in the same place, but for different reasons.

If you then add onto this Italy and Spain then we're in a different place. I can't see either Italy or Spain embracing the idea of meaningful sanctions on Turkey. I don't see this happening now, for the simple reason that both Italian and Spanish foreign policy have traditionally been really driven by a very strong dose of pragmatism. Basically not seeing a black and white approach of being in loggerheads with a country as an effective means of achieving something.

To focus on the country that I know best, Italy, underlying the Italian position is basically a growing consciousness that Turkey is going to be an actor that stays in Libya, that Libya is of existential interest to Italy, and therefore whether we like it or not we have to find a way of working with them. I don't think it is in Italy's interest to burn bridges with Ankara. Even if there is a sort of opposition or dislike or however you want to put it, to things that Turkey is doing in the region. 

Both in the case of Spain and Italy, the dominance of a pragmatic streak in foreign policy puts the two countries in a very different position than those Paris, Athens and Nicosia are and much closer to where Berlin's is.

Pragmatism though is related to specific interests and is not an objective characteristic. You could say France's position is pragmatic in its own context of interests. Therefore what could move their perspective on the issue?

I can't see it happening. I can't see there's something that other member states can give these countries in return of stabilizing the region. They just don't see imposing sanctions on Turkey as a means of stabilizing the region. It's just not their view of the world.

What would change their position would be, as I said, some dramatic incident, which due to a Turkish action there are many casualties. In which case very suddenly you could have a change in the terms of the debate. With the exception of that horrific scenario, I just don't see these countries changing their mind and I don't see what Paris, Athens or Nicosia can do about that.

NATO must at least try

What role can NATO play? We've seen some initiatives. Is their approach offering a realistic prospect? And what makes the two countries reticent to show that they're participating in such a dialogue?

Not sure if it's a realistic prospect or not but it is objectively the only international forum that has a possibility of dealing with this issue. If one is to make parallels between the EU and NATO, the truth is that the EU is not a neutral actor in this conflict. It is a party in this conflict.

When it comes to NATO, I don't know if it's possible for NATO to do something about it, what I do know is that it's necessary for NATO to try. It is more in the interest of Greece that Turkey to see NATO’s efforts succeed. We know that the real risk that we have been running in recent years is an increasing Turkish shift away from the west and toward Russia. In an equation of who has an upper hand it would be Moscow rather than Ankara. So Turkey is progressively less interested in its affiliation to NATO, but Greece, as far as I know, is not considering alternative partnerships and alliances.

So I think out of the two it would be Athens that has even more of an interest that NATO efforts succeed. But the moment I don't see either one side or the other being particularly constructive in this respect.

What do you believe are the goals and the game for either side. Right now Athens can be said to be reacting, so perhaps what is the end game of the Turkish side?

I would dispute whether Athens has been reacting. It is a chicken and egg situation. And one needs to understand when it is that an escalatory dynamic happened. And I don't think that it happened one, two, three, four, months ago, but five years ago. Essentially because what has happened was a dynamic, largely driven by energy, in which a conflict that once upon a time was between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean and then of course the Cyprus conflict, has become a regionalized conflict through energy, in which there is an alignment of actors which includes Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Italy, France, and then if you add Libya and overlay the UAE as well, and on the other side, one actor - Turkey.

So Turkey felt that - and I'm not trying to defend but to explain the Turkish position, the way in which Ankara lived the last five years - felt that it was increasingly cornered, with its back against the wall. It got back into the game through Libya. So Ankara wouldn't see the current escalatory dynamic as something that begun a few months ago. It sees that escalation as something that was driven by the other side.

We can spend hours discussing who is right and who is wrong and at the end of the day it is irrelevant. To get back to the question on how to ignite a de-escalatory dynamic, it is only by forgetting and setting aside the chicken and egg situation, because inevitably everyone thinks the other side started it first and everyone is going to be looking at the other side and what they're doing.

They should look at their own side and think about what it is that they can do to de-escalate. Unless one gets into that frame of mind, we're basically in this high tension situation in which it can very easily and accidently slip into uncontrolled violence, a situation that would obviously damage everyone. 

But I think the de-escalatory dynamic is only to be ignited within Athens, within Ankara, not in a reciprocal way but in an independent way, because both understand that is in their interest to do so. And that there is no one else that is going to magically resolve the conflict from outside.

De-escalation in the interests of Erdogan

Could we say that Turkey, having felt cornered, could have led her to see that it is in her interest to find the way out, or given a way to return to a cooperation framework, would they take it? Or is this a case where the short term gain in nationalist feeling, in projecting a different idea in itself, is more important?

I think that our mistake at looking at Turkey is that of mixing up two levels. We say that because Turkey has been clearly going down an authoritarian route, everything that it does in foreign policy is bad and in a sense irrationally bad. I think that's a fundamental mistake, and I would make this argument about different authoritarian states, I would make it about Russia for example, or China.

I do think that there is a strong connection between domestic and foreign policy in the sense that if one wants to try and understand what Turkey will do in foreign policy, they only need to ask themselves what is in Erdogan's interest in order to consolidate his own power base. There is a strong link there. And we know how important the economy is for Erdogan's domestic power base. 

So I don't think it would be at all irrational, in fact I think it would be very rational, for Ankara and Erdogan to want a stabilization of the situation in the Mediterranean. I don't see why an escalation that can tip into an uncontrolled escalation and outright violence could be in his interest.

Now, having said that, I think that also in order to consolidate his domestic power base, he cannot afford to be pushed over and he cannot afford to be seen to be pushed over. So obviously there is a nationalist element there, but a nationalist element is not incompatible with an outright conflict scenario.

The only way to re-conduct this through anything resembling stability is basically to find that route back into a multilateral rule-based or at least negotiated framework for conflict to evolve. Because the conflict itself is not likely to end. But to rein it back into those limits as was the case in the 2000s. To manage the conflict in a way that it does not make either side feel like they have been bent over. 

The attitude that both parties have at the moment and which are not conducive to the interest of one side or the other, is basically a winner takes it all attitude. I'm right because I'm right, and because I'm right I will punish the other side until they recognize that I'm right.

In this context, how you see Michel's proposal for a conference for the region? And how do you see Cyprus fitting in?

This goes back to the question of the role of the EU. The EU is not a third party to the conflict, it is a party in the conflict. So I don't think that it can be the EU that hosts a conference on peace and reconciliation in the Eastern Med. Because it has excluded itself.

It is a participant, but it is not the actor that can carry the ball on this. I don't see this happening through the EU. I don't see why Turkey would accept it. How would you accept unless you are so weak, such as the Middle East conflict where you accept US mediation because the power inequality is so great you don't have the choice? But this is not the situation between Greece and Turkey. Turkey is not the Palestinian people. It doesn't feel weak. So why would it ever accept a mediating framework and a conference organized by the EU?

I do see initiatives by individual member states and in particular Germany potentially playing an important role, I do see NATO potentially playing an important role, and if Biden were to win the elections, I see the US being back in the game and playing a constructive role.

The Cyprus Problem is a different matter

When it comes to mediating in this issue, would it be a good idea to decouple the Cyprus Problem from this or to include the Cyprus Problem in this package?

I think that in general, even if there should be a comprehensive deal of things, in this particular case it is far preferable to divide things up both in terms of content and in terms of timing and sequence. If one is to say there is a Libya peace, an East Med peace and a Cyprus peace, in order of difficulty, from the lowest hanging fruit, one has to start from Libya.

The interests of the EU and Turkey in Libya do not clash. I think they ultimately converge if one is to remove all bias and distorting lenses. Because both have an interest in stabilization. If we are to find the political will we would be working with Turkey on Libya and we establish functioning channels of communication.

And then to take the East Med piece of it, which again for anyone in Greece and in Turkey would know this infinitely better than I do, resolving this issue all together is a difficult task. It hasn't happened for decades, it probably won't now. But having said, that there have been moments in the past where a constructive process was taking place. 

And then we come to Cyprus, where I am most pessimistic of all. I think in all honesty, and I have been saying and writing this, my PhD was on the Cyprus conflict, I think the last chance that Cyprus had was in 2004. Since then, I haven't seen any opportunity for this to happen. At this moment I don't see any, now less than ever. I don't see the conditions.

To the extent of holding everything else hostage, this is a conflict that is composed objectively of different bits that are kind of loosely connected, kind of not. I think it's shooting yourself in the foot to say nothing is resolved until everything is resolved

You've written in the past that one of the reasons for the ‘no’ in 2004 were the security concerns of Greek Cypriots. We could argue that in the last round these were addressed. Can we salvage these gains from three years ago?

For those gains to be salvaged one needs to reestablish a minimum level of degree of trust with Turkey. Ultimately this is the only thing that can make Cyprus feel secure. At the moment, things have been going in the opposite direction. Which is why I completely and strongly feel that ultimately the way in which things have been headed have been going completely counter to G/C interests.

I was someone that was skeptical three years ago that something can be achieved. And I think there was a reason for the things that happened in 2004 and how they did. Which boils down to that there is a fundamental belief in the RoC that a better deal was possible. And that belief has only been strengthened over the years in a way which jars in reality.

When I talk about the conditions that would have to be reestablished, it is mainly the domestic political conditions within the RoC as much as within Turkey that would need to change in order to make peace a possibility again.

You had said that Turkey would need to make some unilateral moves. What is Turkey's part in salvaging the situation? Can it, given the authoritarian and nationalist turn that Erdogan has taken compared to 2004? How could G/Cs trust the Turkish government now, when it didn't then?

I'm not sure when Turkey was behaving in a better way. It's important always in a conflict to put oneself in the shoes of the other. At the end of the day, what Turkey has seen over the years since 2004 is that - and I will repeat the same story - "we accepted the Annan plan, you refused it, now you know why, we were promised trade and aid to north Cyprus, no it didn't happen, we were promised a credible accession process, we begun in in 2005 and we were slapped in the face". These are facts. One can have arguments about right and wrong and reasons.

The question is what incentive Turkey has today to move towards peace in Cyprus. I would say if peace is anything resembling a bicommunal bi-zonal federation, with that federation being inside the EU, the only thing that could create a Turkish incentive to move in that direction is if it had an interest in coming close to the EU. Which inevitably means that the EU has to change its attitude towards Turkey. Otherwise they have absolutely no interest.

Stance on Belarus unacceptable

To go back to the upcoming European Council summit. Should we expect a final understanding of what to do with Turkey, which could include both what sanctions are possible as well as incentives for cooperation?

I think that when it comes to the European Union, very rarely do we have a EUCO that is the end-all and the be-all to finding a policy. So no I don't think the next EUCO will set those lines.

To make a slightly off point - I think that it would be absolutely despicable to try and make any parallels between what we should be doing in Belarus and what we should be doing in Turkey when it comes to sanctions. And I think making that parallel is really not dignified for any member state of the EU to make. I try to put it as diplomatically as possible.

But there is a give and take between the member states, which withhold approval to gain something else. Are you disagreeing that Greece and Cyprus are playing that game with Belarus?

Obviously negotiations are give and take. Give and take is the bread and butter of European politics. But not when you start mixing levels, which is basically using the meat market approach to a question of principle. What is happening in the eastern Mediterranean and what is happening in Belarus, from a principles point of view, is simply incomparable.

I assume that Greece and Cyprus are not saying that Lukashenko is a nice guy and we support him and that they have a principled support for Minsk. This is blatant keeping something hostage for something else.

Greece and Cyprus believe that their own interests when it comes to principles hasn't been respected, or that their issues with France have not been taken seriously until France's interests corresponded with theirs. 

This is what I mean. It is an approach of saying - and it's problematic - we are in a conflict and we are right 100% and the other side is wrong. If that's the attitude, then we'll never get out of it. I find it an extremely problematic position to have. 

A lot has been made of natural gas as a coal and steel moment. Pushed by the international community. Now that the market has fell, where are we left?

Sometimes we attribute either too much or too little importance to energy. It never had the potential of resolving issues. It had potential of creating opportunity for cooperation. That potential was not seized but it went to opposite direction. Look at the EastMed Forum, it includes all sides on one side of the conflict so it is a strengthening coalition of one side against the other.

It will continue to be a factor. It's true that the situation is where it is but I continue to think that gas and not oil, possibly decarbonized gas, is going o be an element in the energy transition.

But I don't think it's the factor that will change the dynamics. But one has to go back to looking at it as a factor that does not promote further conflict but seizing the potential that is there for cooperation. Finding ways to bring Turkey into that equation. It is not about finding a way for one side to win over the other, but to find a way so that everyone is better off.


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