Role of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean: Remarks by the High Representative / Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP plenary


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Señor Presidente, Mr President, dear friend, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,


The subject of our discussion today is the preparation of the Special European Council, but focusing on the dangerous escalation and the role of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. That is what I am going to try to do, although –as the Presidency of the Council has pointed out rightly- there are many other issues. Yesterday we had this important High-level talk with China, and, in general, Europe is facing a situation in which we can say that the old Empires are coming back, at least three of them: Russia, China and Turkey; big empires of the past who are coming back with an approach on their immediate neighbourhood, globally, which represent for us a new environment. And Turkey is one of these elements that changes our environment.


This debate is very timely, I have to say that tensions continued to rise over the summer. I have spent the last few months –including the summer - trying to facilitate de-escalation efforts. But the least I can say is that more efforts are needed - the softest way of saying that the situation has not been improving.

The latest move by Turkey to discontinue seismic exploration in the continental shelf of Greece is a step in the right direction and gives us some hope that it will lead to further steps towards dialogue. Because as the Presidency said, we are not going to solve it by military means, but through dialogue and negotiations.

EU and Turkey relations were at the forefront of an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Ministers discussion at the meeting we hold on 14 August and of our Gymnich meeting at the beginning of September. We will continue next week at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday and then at the European Council at the end of the month.

All that is good and needed, because the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean requires urgent and collective engagement. What has been happening during the summer are unacceptable events. Turkey has to refrain from taking unilateral actions. This is a basic element to allow the dialogue to advance -well, better, to start.


The position of the Foreign Affairs Ministers has always been very clear: to defend the European Union’s interests and stand in full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus. Immediate de-escalation is essential to allow for the resumption of dialogue and negotiations, which is the only path towards stability and lasting solutions.

My colleagues, the European Union Foreign Ministers, were very clear about the possible consequences in the absence of progress in engaging with Turkey. The European Council will consider these in the light of the most recent developments by the time they meet.

There are still some days, the reaching out continues hoping that the European Council will be able to develop a constructive approach to our relations with Turkey, which are –I can say that firmly- at a watershed moment in history. The world will go one side or the other, depending on what is going to happen on the next days.


I, therefore, ask you to support my efforts and the efforts of the Council to create the urgently needed space to work with the Turkish leadership, to achieve a de-escalation that will allow to pursue lasting solutions to the underlying problems of today’s crisis.

Anything else would also undermine the perspective for the resumption of talks on a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem the United Nations are ready to restart after the elections of the Turkish community in Cyprus in October. I have been talking with the Secretary General of the United Nations about it and I think that we need to push for the resumption of these talks.

The European Union – and I, as High Representative – will continue to do everything we can to support the efforts to achieve this comprehensive settlement under United Nations auspices, in accordance with relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and in line with the principles on which we have founded our acquis.

In terms of domestic developments in Turkey, we perceive a worrying backsliding in the area of rule of law and fundamental freedoms that continues to raise our concerns. We still fail to see Turkey delivering on its promises to take effective measures on strengthening the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.


Turkey’s serious backsliding away from European Union values and reforms and tense relations with several Member States led the Council to decide in 2018 for a “standstill” of the accession negotiations and suspension of work on modernising the Customs Union. These were commitments that we took with Turkey on the 2016’s agreement and in 2018 the Council decided to standstill on these negotiations and suspend the work on modernising the Customs Union. With the serious developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish foreign policy actions in the region since last fall, things have become even more worrying and complex. As I said, this is a watershed moment in history on our relations with Turkey.


Mr President, Honourable Members,


It is clear that solutions will not come from an increasingly confrontational relationship. We do not want it, we do not look for it. Turkey is an important neighbour for the European Union –we are not going to change geography, it will remain so– and it is a key partner in many areas, migration for example. It is going to be difficult to believe that we can solve the migration flows without the help of Turkey, both at the Eastern Mediterranean and now with the Libyan crisis also in the Central Mediterranean.

It is a candidate country for accession, and a large majority of its population embrace our values and look to the European Union as a societal model. But it is clear that developments in Turkey and Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond put into question how our relations will develop in the future. We have to look for an answer to these questions urgently.


I strongly believe in the need for a solid relationship anchored in a common agenda of partnership that respects mutual interests and based on values, but this requires us to look at the full relationship in a comprehensive way.

I think that this discussion will help to advance on this direction.


Thank you Mr President, thank you Honourable Members [of the European Parliament].


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Closing remarks

Thank you Mr President, and thank you to all of you for your contributions to the analysis of the situation and proposals for the next Foreign Affairs Council and the next European Council. I will consider all these comprehensive views and I will share them with my colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Council and transmit to the members of the European Council when the Heads of State and Government will meet. I have the honour and responsibility to attend the meeting of the European Council and I will transmit the positions of the European Parliament, which have been expressed today.

It is clear to me that we have to stand by our interests and demonstrate our readiness to protect the rights and interests of the European Union and especially the ones of Cyprus and Greece, which have been threatened.

In our Gymnich meeting in Berlin we got a political agreement and now we are trying to make this political agreement become a formal decision at the Foreign Affairs Council. The working groups of the Council are engaged on that. Unhappily today there is not an agreement but you know that sanctions require a strong agreement between Member States, unanimity even and for the time being this is not the case. We will continue working to find a solution that could make possible both sanctions to Belarus and sanctions to Turkey to follow the same pace as we agreed in the informal meeting in Berlin.

At the same time, it also has been expressed here that a minimum of trust and dialogue with Turkey has to be pursued in order to stop the escalation. Both things are not contradictory, we have on one hand to show our readiness and our stance and, on the other, to continue talking. This is the work of diplomacy and what we are trying to do, especially I myself with the help of the European External Action Service, to look for ways to work through our problems and improve our relations.


I cannot answer to all the questions that you have been raising. I only would like to say to Mr [Sergey] Lagodinsky [Member of the European Parliament] and others that I would share very much their approach to try to substitute the search for energy undersea, which is something that is not exactly in accordance with our Green Deal, and instead of that we should try to provide Cyprus, Turkey and the Greek islands with a big support in order to develop alternative energies. The sun is there, the wind is there, all the natural resources that we want to mobilise to provide a cleaner and de-carbonised energy are there. And if one of the ways to try to stop the problem is to stop looking for carbon energy – although gas is the least carbon one, it is still a carbon one – and to look for another solution, this should be part of the solution.


At the same time, you claim here for decisions that are out of my capacity and the capacity of the Council, like for example the arms issue. It is a matter for the Member States, and all of you can influence the attitude of your Member States through the national parliaments. I am sure that the voices that have been expressed here at the European Parliament will still be heard at the national parliaments, that the political parties that you represent will ask at the national level the same thing that you have been asking here. Because the answer has to come from Member States. The European Union has not the capacity for example to decide an arms embargo, it is a unilateral decision for Member States to decide what to do with their arms policy.


About the resources that we have been providing to Turkey, some have been mentioning, I want to make the difference between the resources that we allocate to Turkey and the resources that we allocate to help Syrian and other refugees, which have been hosted by Turkey. Those are different things. This money goes to provide schools and healthcare and social security and even food for hundreds of thousands of refugees. They are in Turkey, so the money in some cases goes to projects implemented with the Turkish government, but in most of the cases, it goes directly to the interested people, through NGOs and through United Nations organisations. And I suppose that everybody here will be in favour of giving financial support to alleviate the situation of the refugees who are being hosted in Turkey. Please make the difference because these are completely different things.


Thank you very much for all your contributions. I understand there are strong feelings about the Turkish issue, the Turkish membership. Our relations with Turkey, as I said, are in a watershed moment. This is one of the moments in history when decision makers have to go and face difficult decisions, trying to look for the best for all of us. I am sure that this is what the European Council will try to do at the next meeting.


Thank you very much.


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