Turkey and the European Union, following a turbulent year in 2020, have been voicing their intent to readjust relations and return to a positive track in bilateral ties. Yet the process remains highly fragile as EU leaders declared last week that they are prepared to boost trade and extend a 2016 migration pact with Ankara, but warned of sanctions if Turkey resumes what the EU perceives as "illegal" energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“The EU seeks to apply a carrot and stick policy towards Turkey and the same was on display in the last summit,” Dimitris Tsarouhas, associate professor from Bilkent University's International Relations Department told Daily Sabah.
“The positive agenda between the two sides is contingent on Turkey's (so-called) 'behavior' regarding the Eastern Mediterranean,” he added.
In the most recent flare-up of the long-standing dispute last year, EU member states Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration clashed with Turkey over maritime boundaries and natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey, the country with the longest coastline on the Eastern Mediterranean, has sent drillships with a military escort to explore for energy on its continental shelf, to enforce Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)'s rights in the region.
During a meeting in Brussels on Dec. 10, EU leaders decided to draw up a list of Turkish targets to sanction. While France, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration have been the biggest advocates of taking a hard line against Turkey, other EU states led by economic powerhouse Germany have leaned toward a more diplomatic approach so far.
“Since then, the hostile rhetoric has subdued dramatically, with Turkey and the bloc both voicing their desire to ‘turn a new page,’” Tsarouhas reminded.
Brussels-based political analyst Ipek Tekdemir drew a more positive picture, saying: “EU-Turkey relations took a turn for the better as exemplified by the recent European Council conclusions. Both sides decided to turn back from unnecessary confrontations regarding natural gas and resources issues in the Eastern Mediterranean and return back to cooperation.”
During the latest summit of EU leaders on March 25 and March 26, the bloc stated it is ready to boost cooperation with Turkey if the "current de-escalation is sustained.”
"Today, we have a clear framework and we hope, we really hope, it will be possible to improve the relationship with Turkey," said European Council president Charles Michel.
"But we remain cautious and remain careful."
This bears the question of whether the EU will backpedal on its vows for a more constructive and positive agenda if Turkey takes any steps toward protecting its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The bloc's conclusions also stated that the EU was prepared to impose sanctions "to defend its interests and those of its member states" in case of what the EU perceived as “renewed provocations or unilateral actions” by Ankara.
Following the summit, Turkey criticized the outcomes as the Foreign Ministry in a written statement said, “Even though the need for a positive agenda was stressed, it was found that the report was written from a unilateral point of view and under the influence of narrow-minded allegations from a few member countries.”
The bloc has adopted more positive rhetoric since the December summit as it has been encouraged by the resumption of talks with Greece over a disputed maritime border and plans to restart United Nations peace efforts for the divided island of Cyprus. Yet differences also exist in this area since Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots ruled out discussing a federal system to reunify the island, insisting that a two-state accord is the only way forward.
The EU camp has also voiced “concern” over Ankara's recent moves to shut down the pro-PKK People's Democratic Party (HDP) and its departure from a treaty on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention.
“Turkey of course in order to move further in the accession process needs to conform to EU expectations regarding basic issues like fundamental rights,” Tekdemir stated.
“In the current very difficult times of the pandemic, it appears useful that all actors refrain from unnecessary provocative rhetoric and work together to stabilize our societies and our economies,” she added, stressing that the world is still amidst a third wave of the pandemic. “We all have a bigger enemy at the moment and we should all work together to fight the only enemy we currently have, which is the virus.”
Turkey recently reiterated that it is part of Europe and sees its future in the EU, adding that it will continue to work toward full membership. Turkish officials have also said that they hope for progress in 2021 and expect the bloc to take definitive actions to this end.
President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen are set to visit Turkey on Tuesday for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which could contribute to a further positive atmosphere.
“Drawing on history, witnesses see how this relationship can be an excellent win-win algorithm, as much as it can rapidly turn out to be a lose-lose situation or even a triple win-or-lose equation with political, economic and social resonance reaching far beyond the continent,” Bahadır Kaleağası, head of the Institut du Bosphore, a think-tank, wrote in a recent paper published at the Atlantic Council.
Saying that political tensions between Turkey and the EU are “real, challenging and harmful,” Kaleağası added that nonconstructive policies of engagement are also part of the problem.
“They (the relations) have been stimulated by years of ever weaker partnership, deadlocks, prejudices and policy errors from both sides. Thus, we cannot find in negative policies – blocking, suspending or sanctioning different aspects of the EU-Turkey relationship – a relevant solution to contemporary problems,” he said.
Kaleağası added that reengaging with Turkey would also propel convergence on various foreign policy topics such as Cyprus, the Mediterranean, the fight against terrorism and management of the refugee crisis.
Apart from “a mandate for the modernization” of customs arrangements; the future launch of “high-level dialogues” on issues such as the pandemic, climate change, counter-terrorism and regional issues and strengthened cooperation “on people-to-people contacts and mobility,” the summit stated that it would also address the issue of migration.
The bloc is refusing to reopen the migration deal but the summit advised the European Commission to come up with a proposal on more funding for Turkey to house millions of refugees.
“There is a willingness on the part of the EU to renew the migration deal with Turkey and it seems that an agreement could be within reach,” Tsarouhas stated further, referring to the March 18 statement Ankara and Brussels struck in 2016.
“Going beyond that is going to be difficult, not least due to the pandemic and the complications this brings about. It is in the interests of both sides to cooperate effectively going forward and this can only be done in the context of a rules-based framework that both sides will have a stake in,” he continued.
In September 2015, the image of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi's lifeless body that washed ashore in Turkey sent shock waves across the world.
Six months later, Turkish and EU leaders inked a migration pact under which Ankara was to receive political and financial benefits in return for tackling migration.
However, Brussels did not keep its promises to ease visa regulations and upgrade the customs union.
Shortly after the deal was struck in May 2016, arrivals of irregular migrants in the European Union dropped sharply – but still remain high. Almost 860,000 irregular migrants made their way from Turkey to Greece by sea in 2015, compared to 60,000 in 2019. The numbers dropped to a record low of 9,714 people in 2020 – although this is likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Five years on, the pact is failing as Turkey struggles with the increased number of migrants, while the EU is more divided than ever over its asylum policy.
Turkey is hosting 6 million migrants, with nearly 4 million from Syria, its migration authority says. That is 2 million more than in 2016, a heavy burden on a country that only had 60,000 asylum-seekers in 2011 before Syria's civil war broke out.
The pact nearly collapsed last year when thousands of migrants, mostly Afghans, Pakistanis and Iraqis, amassed at the Turkish border with Greece after Ankara opened its borders for those heading to Europe, fearing more refugees from Syria's Idlib.
The border crisis was interrupted by the outbreak of the pandemic.
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