Fourth Report of Session 2019-21 Contents

12EU sanctions against Turkey59

This EU document is legally and politically important because:

  • it imposes sanctions on Turkey for its unauthorised gas drilling in Cypriot territorial waters, the first time the EU has applied restrictive measures against a NATO ally and major economic partner; and
  • the UK has to enforce the sanctions, currently consisting of an asset freeze and travel ban against two employees of the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, until the end of the post-Brexit transition period even while it tries to negotiate a new trade agreement with Turkey.


  • Write to the Minister of State at the Foreign Office (Nigel Adams MP) to clarify if the UK intends to carry these sanctions over domestically after the end of the post-Brexit transition period.
  • Draw the EU’s imposition of sanctions against Turkey to the attention of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Trade Committee.


12.1Since 2014, Turkey has repeatedly violated the sovereignty of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus — an EU Member State — to drill for hydrocarbon reserves. These activities have intensified since the discovery of significant gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean in 2018.

12.2On 11 November 2019, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Ministers60 — the UK included — formally approved a legal framework enabling the EU to impose sanctions against Turkish citizens and companies involved in the continued unauthorised drilling for hydrocarbon resources in Cyprus’ territorial waters. On 27 February 2020, this framework — which imposes an EU-wide travel ban61 and asset freeze62 against people and entities listed — was specifically invoked against two high-ranking employees of the government-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO). The sanctions are significant because Turkey is a NATO ally of many EU Member States, as well a major economic partner (being in a customs union with the EU).

12.3While not directly linked, the sanctions should also be seen in the wider political context of extreme strain in the European Union’s relations with Turkey. These result notably from the EU’s opposition to Turkish military incursion into North East Syria in autumn 2019 (which has led to some EU countries restricting or banning arms sales to Turkey), and Ankara’s decision in February 2020 to threaten to suspend63 a 2016 arrangement with the EU under which the Turkey receives €6 billion (£5.2 billion) in financial support in return for preventing the crossing of refugees and others into EU Member States Greece and Bulgaria.

The Government’s position

12.4The then-Minister for Europe and the Americas64 (Rt Hon. Christopher Pincher MP) submitted an Explanatory Memorandum on the EU’s sanctions against Turkey on 6 February 2020, nearly two months after they were approved by EU Foreign Affairs Ministers (at a time when the UK was still entitled to attend EU meetings as a full Member State).

12.5With respect to the substance of these measures, the Minister said that “the UK has been clear from the start that we oppose Turkish drilling” in “an area the UK would regard pas of the Republic of Cyprus’ internationally-agreed Exclusive Economic Zone”, and “continue[s] to call for de-escalation and dialogue”. Under the terms of the transition period in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will have to apply these measures until 31 December 2020.65 However, the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum does not state whether the Government intends to maintain the sanctions independently after that point if Turkey’s activities in Cypriot waters have not ceased by that point.


12.6The Committee has taken note of the new EU sanctions framework, the first time the European Union has applied restrictive measures of this kind against a NATO ally as well as a major economic and security partner.66 It has written to the Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (Nigel Adams MP) to ascertain the Government’s policy on the continuation, or disapplication, of the sanctions against Turkey after the end of the transition period. The text of that letter is shown below.

Letter from the Chair to the Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (Nigel Adams), 18 March 2020

EU sanctions against Turkey

I am writing to thank you for your predecessor’s Explanatory Memorandum of 6 February 2020 on the EU’s new sanctions framework in response to Turkey’s drilling activities in Cypriot territory.67 We note that the Foreign Affairs Council has since listed two employees of Turkey’s TPAO petroleum company under the regime.68

However, we have not received information from you about whether the UK intends carry over the restrictive measures in domestic law after EU law ceases to be binding on the Government and UK financial institutions at the end of the transition period. As EU sanctions will not automatically be carried over into UK law after the end of the transitional period under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, it would be helpful if you could clarify if the intention is to maintain EU sanctions in operation at that time if Turkish activities in Cypriot waters have not ceased.

59 Document(s): (a) Council Decision (CFSP) 2019/1894 concerning restrictive measures in view of Turkey’s unauthorised drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean; (b) Council Regulation (EU) 2019/1890; Legal base: (a) Article 29 TEU; (b) Article 215 TFEU; Department: Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Devolved Administrations: not consulted; ESC number: (a) 41059; (b) 41060.

60 The UK, then still a Member State of the EU, was represented by Sir Tim Barrow, its Permanent Representative (now Head of Mission) in Brussels.

61 A travel ban through or to the EU which can be invoked against people “involved in” unauthorised drilling activities in Cypriot waters,3 as well as those who provide “financial, technical or material support” for such activities and those “associated with” either of these two categories of people. In legal terms, the sanctions framework refers to Cyprus “territorial sea”, “exclusive economic zone” and “continental shelf”, as well as drilling in areas where “the exclusive economic zone or continental shelf has not been delimited in accordance with international law with a State having an opposite coast”, but where such activities “may jeopardise or hamper the reaching of a delimitation agreement” (Article 1(1)(a) of the Decision).

62 Under the sanctions framework, an asset freeze of “funds and economic resources” held by any of the people listed as being subject to the travel ban, as well as any organisations or companies listed. There would be some exceptions, including allowing listed person to access their funds for the purpose of making a “payment due under a contract entered into prior to the date” on which the asset freeze became applicable to them. For example, funds could be unfrozen to “satisfy the basic needs of the natural or legal persons, entities or bodies listed”, including for “payments for foodstuffs, rent or mortgage, medicines and medical treatment, taxes, insurance premiums, and public utility charges” or to pay for legal representation.

63 On 28 February 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Turkey would cease exercising controls at its borders with EU Member States Greece and Bulgaria to stop crossings of refugees and other people from immigrant communities. The decision by Turkey to encourage people to move into Greece and Bulgaria followed an escalation in violence in the war in Syria and the subsequent displacement of even more refugees into Turkey (which already hosts more than 3 million).

64 This Ministerial position no longer exists. Our engagement with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in relation to EU foreign policy issues is now conducted via Nigel Adams MP, Minister of State with Asia but also responsible for relations with Parliament.

65 Article 132 of the Withdrawal Agreement provides for the possibility of an extension of the transition for no more than two years, i.e. until 31 December 2022. However, Parliament has legislated against the Government accepting any extension of the transitional period under section 15A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

66 The Committee notes in this respect that there is, at the UK’s request, no dedicated negotiating track within the UK-EU future relationship negotiations on a formalised, structural approach to “cooperation on foreign policy, security and defence”.

67 ESC documents (41059) and (41060).

68 Council Decision (CFSP) 2020/275 of 27 February 2020, not yet deposited for scrutiny.

Published: 29 April 2020