By G9ija

The European Union has stepped up the pressure on Turkey by approving an initial batch of sanctions over the country’s move to drill for gas in waters that bloc member Cyprus sees as its own.

Ankara has pushed back, saying that curbing contact or funding by the EU would not pressure it to stop the search for oil and gas off the Cypriot coast.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the move “showed how biased and partisan the EU is on the subject of Cyprus”.

“The decisions will not affect in the slightest our country’s determination to continue hydrocarbon activities in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the ministry statement said. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued his own warning last week that his country would step up drilling activities off Cyprus if the EU moved ahead with sanctions.

The EU ministers said in a statement that in light of Turkey’s “continued and new illegal drilling activities”, it was suspending talks on an air transport agreement and would call on the European Investment Bank to “review” its lending to the country.

Two Turkish vessels escorted by warships are drilling for gas on either end of divided Cyprus.

Turkey does not recognise Cyprus as a state and claims 44 per cent of the island’s exclusive economic zone as its own, according to Cypriot government officials. Ankara also backs the breakaway northern Turkish-Cypriot half of the east Mediterranean island, which claims a further 25 per cent of Cyprus’ economic area.

Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. A Turkish-Cypriot declaration of independence is recognised only by Turkey, which keeps more than 35,000 troops in the north.

Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but only the internationally recognised south enjoys full membership benefits.

Turkey contends that it is protecting its rights and those of Turkish Cypriots to the area’s hydrocarbon deposits. Cypriot officials, however, accuse Ankara of using the minority Turkish Cypriots in order to pursue its goal of exerting control over the eastern Mediterranean region.

The EU ministers repeated the “serious immediate negative impact” that Turkey’s illegal actions are having on bilateral relations and called on Ankara to respect Cyprus’ sovereign rights in line with international law.

The Cypriot government says it will take legal action against any oil and gas companies supporting Turkish vessels in any repeat attempt to drill for gas. Cyprus has already issued about 20 international arrest warrants against three international companies assisting one of the two Turkish vessels now drilling 68 kilometres off the island’s west coast.

The Cyprus government has licensed energy companies including ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Italy’s Eni to carry out gas drilling in blocks, or areas, off the island’s southern coastline. At least three significant gas deposits have been discovered so far.

Meanwhile, Cyprus’s Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades will chair a meeting of political leaders Tuesday to discuss a renewed proposal by Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to establish a joint committee with Greek Cypriots on managing offshore gas drilling.

Mr Akinci has repeatedly called for the creation of such a committee, which he says would give his community a say in how newly found gas deposits off Cyprus’s southern coast are managed and future proceeds shared. A similar proposal was made by Mr Akinci’s predecessor, Dervis Eroglu, in 2011.

The Cypriot government says energy discussions with Turkish Cypriots should be part of overarching reunification talks, adding that Turkish-Cypriot rights to the island’s energy reserves are assured. The government says future gas proceeds that will flow into an established hydrocarbons fund will be shared equitably after a peace deal is signed.

The latest EU move comes as ties between Turkey and the US are strained over Ankara’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems.

The US is concerned that a Nato partner’s purchase of Russian missile systems could give Moscow a back door into the alliance’s systems – particularly its trillion-dollar F-35 stealth multi-role combat aircraft programme.

In response to the move by Ankara, the US is mulling sanctions and other measures just days after the first deliveries of the S-400 arrived in Turkey.