Turkey hopes to normalize its ties with the European Union in 2021 following a year in which tensions have characterized international relations, said Faruk Kaymakcı, deputy foreign minister and director for EU affairs. In the upcoming year, the country aims to promote win-win relations, to find a fair solution to the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, to update the March 18 statement with all of its dimensions, including migration, carrying out reforms and bringing Ankara closer to the bloc, Kaymakcı said.
“Twenty-twenty-one can be a year of normalization in Turkey-EU relations; it can also be a year of reform and win-win. From 2021 on, what we expect from the EU is dialogue and engagement with no conditions,” Kaymakcı told Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview.
“I hope that we can start exploratory talks with Greece, and we wish that the proposed Eastern Mediterranean conference can be held as quickly as possible. I think this can bring a positive agenda to the East Med by bringing together coastal states including Turkish Cypriots,” the diplomat stated, referring to rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration over drilling activities and maritime borders.
Ankara has sent several drillships in recent months to explore for energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting its rights in the region as well as those of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
In order to solve the web of problems in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean as well as the Cyprus issue, Turkey stated its willingness to hold exploratory talks with its neighbor, proposing a conference with the participation of all Mediterranean countries as well a UN+5 meeting on Cyprus.
“For us, the participation of the Turkish Cypriots in this conference is a must. The main problem we face today in the Eastern Mediterranean is the unsolved Cyprus issue. Turkish Cypriots have the same rights as Greek Cypriots regarding natural resources,” Kaymakcı underlined.
“We should take advantage of the oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean to establish an inclusive energy cooperation having the potential to play the role coal and steel did for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951,” he stated. “We hope that oil and gas can create some sort of confidence-building between Turkish and Greek Cypriots and help to solve the Cyprus problem to the satisfaction of both sides, which could also contribute to Turkish-Greek relations as well as the normalization of Turkey-EU relations.”
Relations between Turkey and Greece are at odds due to several issues. Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration and stressed that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots. Instead of opting to solve problems with Turkey through dialogue, Greece has several times refused to sit at the negotiation table with Turkey and opted to rally the EU to take a tougher stance on Ankara.
“Greece and Greek Cypriots believe they can Europeanize all their bilateral issues with Turkey owing to EU solidarity and their veto right,” Kaymakcı underlined, saying that although the union cannot solve problems, though it could play a role of an honest broker and encourage and facilitate talks.
“But we saw that when it came to two EU members, Greece and the Greek Cypriots, the EU could not be an honest broker since there is the EU membership solidarity approach and the unanimity clause,” he pointed out, saying that “it would be wise for Greece and the Greek Cypriots to talk and engage directly with their Turkish and Turkish Cypriot counterparts.”
“In the end, we are neighbors and closer to each other than some other European countries. We belong to the same geography and culture,” he added.
EU leaders during a meeting in Brussels on Dec. 10 decided to draw up a list of Turkish targets to sanction over what they described as Ankara's "unilateral actions and provocations" in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ahead of the summit, Greece called for additional sanctions, an EU arms embargo on Turkey and the suspension of the Turkey-EU customs union, but during discussions, a majority of European leaders opposed severe economic sanctions, opting for a softer approach, creating space for a positive agenda.
“The EU started to adopt sanctions on an unfair basis on our accession process since the very beginning,” Kaymakcı pointed out. “This sanction mentality has brought Turkey-EU relations to the lowest level today and solved none of the related issues.”
Expressing that Turkey is part of Europe's family and that sanctions usually are not imposed on a family member, the deputy minister expressed that the EU is not defending its own general interests by imposing sanctions but rather serves “the narrow-minded, irrational and maximalist ambitions of some member states.”
Turkey, EU intertwined
Regarding the turbulent year Ankara and Brussels have just put behind them, Kaymakcı pointed out that Turkey is prepared to communicate and engage, adding that it was not the Turkish side that cut off channels of dialogue.
The deputy minister shared that while Turkey had hoped for positive relations in 2020, developments in Syria had a negative impact. The failure of the international community to help Turkey fight terrorism and deal with the millions of refugees prompted the country's peace operation in northern Syria in late 2019, launched to create a terror-free zone and facilitate the return of Syrian refugees while preventing another migration wave.
Another significant issue affecting Turkey-EU relations is the issue of migration. Ankara and Brussels on March 18, 2016 made a deal to tackle irregular migration, which “might not have been the best or the most ideal deal but was realistic and useful,” according to Kaymakcı.
Kaymakcı underlined that both sides had commitments, especially referring to one aspect of the migration deal stating that for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled from Turkey to the EU. “This promise has been kept,” he said.
Ankara has spent around $40 billion (TL 274 billion) so far on Syrians in Turkey, while the EU has so far spent only 3.34 billion euros of a promised 6 billion euros, which is fully contracted.
Another commitment by the EU was the Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme, Kaymakcı explained. “The EU was supposed to take people from Turkey, but some member states blocked it so the program was never put into practice,” he said.
Expressing that the EU should do more and that together with Turkey the union must take steps toward the future, Kaymakcı stated: “We expect that in 2021 we can renew our commitments under a revised agreement with a much better functioning migration deal because we cannot just tackle this problem by keeping people in Turkey and providing limited financial assistance to them.”
“Especially Turkey, Greece, Germany, but also Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Sweden, who play an important role in terms of dealing with the migration problem should take the lead to create a new and better-functioning migration strategy,” he continued.
Highlighting the EU's unfair criticism of the Turkish operation, Kaymakcı pointed out that the March 18 statement struck between Turkey and the EU outlined a joint cooperation effort in northern Syria in order to better conditions for the people.
“The EU and its Member States will work with Turkey in any joint endeavor to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria, in particular in certain areas near the Turkish border which would allow for the local population and refugees to live in areas which will be safer,” read the March 18 statement.
“In line with Article 9 of the March 18 statement, Turkey was expecting support from the EU, but this support did not come,” he said, saying that in the face of the bloc’s negative stance, Ankara reminded the EU that it was not fulfilling its obligations.
In response, Turkey chose to no longer prevent refugees from migrating to the rest of Europe from February 28, 2020 onward. After this development, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and EU leaders held a meeting in Brussels on March 9 and agreed on the renewal of the March 18 statement with all of its dimenisons, Kaymakcı elaborated. The statement would not just cover irregular migration but also reviving accession negotiations, modernizing the Turkey-EU customs union, improved cooperation in fighting terrorism, progress in the visa process for Turkish citizens as well as holding regular Turkey-EU high-level dialogue meetings and summits.
“Turkey has never taken any stance against the EU of which she desires to be a respected member,” Kaymakcı stated, highlighting that the nation and the union are intertwined.
“We have completed our work and made a proposal to the EU side for the renewal of the March 18 statement already in April this year,” he stated, adding that however Greece and the Greek Cypriots decided to block the work on the update of the statement.
Kaymakcı stressed that the issue of unanimity within the EU must be tackled before it binds the hands of the bloc, preventing it from enlargement and from executing a more effective foreign policy.
Turkey has the longest history with the union and the longest negotiation process. The country signed an association agreement with the EU's predecessor European Economic Community (EEC) in 1964, which is usually regarded as a first step to eventually become a candidate. Applying for official candidacy in 1987, Turkey had to wait until 1999 to be granted the status of a candidate country. For the start of the negotiations, however, Turkey had to wait for another six years, until 2005, a uniquely long process compared with other candidates.
On top of the slow negotiations, another challenge threatened Turkey's ascension into the union when in 2016 the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) attempted a coup, forcing the country to declare a state of emergency. Unhappy with the move, the European Parliament on Nov. 24, 2016, stated that it would temporarily "freeze" the negotiations, which has kept the process at a standstill ever since.
EU accession action plan ready
On Turkey's EU membership efforts, the Directorate for EU affairs has taken a multifaceted approach, encouraging the reform process, implementing a communication strategy, working on the negotiation chapters and cooperating financially while participating in significant EU programs including Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. According to the directorate, 550,000 Turkish citizens participated in the Erasmus program while Turkey also received around 150,000 EU citizens since 2004.
“We prepared an action plan for our EU accession process covering the period of 2021-2023,” Kaymakcı underlined, adding that through its Turkey-EU communication strategy, the directorate tries to explain to the bloc the advantages of Turkey becoming a member. The strategy also covers explaining EU membership to Turkish citizens and sectors.
“According to our findings, we see that despite all the complexities and prejudices against Turkey’s accession in the rest of Europe, Turkish people overwhelmingly support Turkey’s membership; 80% of them think that EU membership is useful for them and support the membership process,” he stated.
“Through EU membership, Turkish society believes that our democratic system would be stronger, rule of law would be strengthened further, the economy would grow bigger and Turkey would be more influential in foreign policy, having better security and defense systems," Kaymakcı said.
Reforms to boost EU, Turkey alignment
In order to open new chapters and address deficiencies in several areas, Turkey in the final months of 2020 announced it would be entering a period of reform, particularly focusing on the economy, judiciary as well as the rule of law.
“Turkey has decided to accelerate its reform process,” Kaymakcı said, stressing that Ankara had to enact security-focused policies in recent years due to the 2016 FETÖ coup attempt.
He noted that Turkey had made good progress fighting notorious terrorist organizations including the PKK, its affiliates, FETÖ and Daesh.
“Now we can focus more on the reformist agenda; this can help make progress in meeting the remaining few benchmarks toward visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone,” he said, indicating that the reforms would serve Turkish citizens in the first place and have the potential to increase the level of alignment between Turkey and the EU.
Turkey has also signaled an amelioration in relations with the U.S. and all European nations, hoping to start the new year with a clean slate.
“We are also trying to normalize relations with France: 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the Ankara Agreement with which France, as the first Western European country, recognized the newly established Government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey,” Kaymakcı stated.
US can contribute to restoring relations
On another note, Kaymakcı added that the incoming U.S. administration under President-elect Joe Biden could help restore trans-Atlantic relations due to Washington having strongly advocated for Turkey's EU membership and having supported transatlantic ties in the past.
“For Turkey, the West is mainly composed of three pillars: the Council of Europe, NATO and the EU. For us, EU membership signifies being fully part of the West, having a stronger economy, more advanced democracy, and being a major global foreign and security policy actor.”
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