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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The EU took a step closer to imposing sanctions on Turkey on Monday as foreign ministers lined up to criticise the direction of the bloc's large south-eastern neighbour.
Anger over the decision to change the cultural designation of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to a mosque has compounded European frustration with Turkey's aggressive Mediterranean policies and its intervention in Libya.
EU foreign ministers gathered face-to-face for the first time since the spring for a summit at which Turkey dominated the session.
The EU opposes Turkey's drilling for oil and gas off the coast of Cyprus, as well as Ankara's actions in support of the UN-recognised government in Libya. Both moves have been taken under the umbrella of a maritime accord between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government and the administration in Tripoli.
The 27 countries said that for the time being efforts to engage with Turkey to secure policy concessions would continue but new options for imposing sanctions would be brought forward by officials.
Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, led the meeting and said the "difficult" session on Turkey raised the challenges posed by Mr Erdogan in some detail.
"All the member states said positive signals were needed from Turkey," he told a later meeting of the European parliament.
Among the demands were a complete stop of exploratory drilling off Cyrus and promises that Turkish companies would not to drill around the Greek island of Crete.
"Given the strategic importance of Turkey we do need dialogue," said Mr Maas. "We need understanding from Turkey on Cyprus, on Libya and Crete," he said. "Right now I cannot see a basis for those discussion but we need to reach out - Turkey is in a key position along those fault lines facing Europe."
Mr Maas gave a warning that the dynamics between Turkey and Russia in conflict zones around the Mediterranean would be closely monitored. He said he did not want the pair to "carve" up warring states. "We will not allow a monopoly to these players," he said.
After failing to make headway on a trip to Turkey last week Josep Borrell, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, said the issue would be raised again in August. "You know that our relationship with Turkey is not especially good at this moment," he observed.
France has demanded a common front against Turkey after an incident that saw the Turkish navy turn its targeting radar on a French frigate trying to intercept an arms shipment to Tripoli. Paris believes Ankara has repeatedly breached the UN arms embargo on the oil-rich North African country.
In a report released before the summit, the European Centre for Foreign Relations said the eastern Mediterranean posed a litmus test for how Turkey was expanding its influence in the region. "The fact that Nato allies are staring each other down on the European Union's doorstep should cause all Europeans to pay greater attention to the region," it said. "What happens in the eastern Mediterranean is no longer a peripheral issue."
Luxembourg's Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, said that with the announcement that Turkey had abandoned Unesco designation on the Hagia Sophia it had effectively turned away from the orientation of its strategic policies towards Europe.
“When I see now what is happening with Hagia Sophia, that is a blow," he said.
Hagia Sophia was originally built in Istanbul as a Christian cathedral, and the pope and many countries have expressed their sadness and criticism of the move by Mr Erdogan.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that the movements in the Mediterranean were “a reason for worrying" and insisted that human rights and democracy issues were taken up during the meeting.
Alexander Schallenberg, the Foreign Minister of Austria, called the Hagia Sophia change "the latest link in a chain of provocations" and said Ankara was "simply not a reliable partner for Europe".
Updated: July 13, 2020 08:27 PM
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