The way ahead after a difficult 2020 for EU-Turkey relations
European integration has been driven by the aim of overcoming the dynamics of conflicts between states, which have characterised European history, under evolving social and political formats, for many centuries. Since their creation, the Ottoman and Russian Empires have been part of this equation. And today still, it is clear that the European Union will not be able to achieve stability on the continent unless it finds the right balance in its relations with Turkey and the Russian Federation.
Turning dynamics of mistrust into relationships based on cooperation
Defensive, attitudes, based on deterrence do not provide long-term solutions. At most they offer some breathing space. Our challenge, and mutual interest – and my responsibility as High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission - is to turn dynamics of mistrust, rivalry or confrontation, into relationships based on common interests and on cooperation.
"It is clear that the European Union will not be able to achieve stability on the continent unless it finds the right balance in its relations with Turkey."
Some may read these lines with scepticism. But those that do so often think from purely national standpoints, rather than from the broader pan-European outlook that the EU offers. It is important to recall the political essence of the European project. Indeed, in less than thirteen years after the end of the II World War, one of the bloodiest conflicts ever, the European Communities, followed by the European Union, brought together former enemies around a common agenda of cooperation and integration. A lesson that still drives our ambitions and foreign policy to date.
A year of trouble and constant activities and dialogue
When I assumed my responsibilities as HR/VP a year ago, the EU’s relationship with Turkey was already on a downward slope. I knew from the outset that redressing this situation was going to be one of the biggest challenges of my mandate. Mutual expectations from the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement, which followed the outbreak of the migration crisis of 2015, had not borne fruit even though it did help control migration flows towards Europe. From June 2016 onwards, there had been little to no progress on the accession negotiations.
Confrontation over exploitation of resources in the Eastern Mediterranean was gathering speed, coupled with long-standing disagreements on control over maritime spaces among concerned coastal states. The efforts in Crans Montana to find a final solution to the reunification of Cyprus had failed in 2017. Turkey’s regional engagement from Eastern and Northern Africa to the Western Balkans continued to gather strength. In particular, Turkey’s active and unilateral involvement in both Syria and in Libya has been increasingly perceived as not aligned with the security interests of the EU itself nor with the understandings reached amongst all member states.
"Mutual expectations from the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement, which followed the outbreak of the migration crisis of 2015, had not borne fruit."
The November 2019 Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey and the Government of National Accord in Libya, which identified respective exclusive economic zones fueled serious concerns and elicited a strong response from the EU. The agreement also contained clauses on military support that were in contradiction with the UN arms embargo on Libya. This was soon accompanied by the continuous deployment of Turkish exploration or drilling vessels in Eastern Mediterranean, challenging directly Greece and Cyprus.
These activities had already started earlier and had led to the development of a specific regime of EU restrictive measures aimed at protecting Cypriot waters. Unfortunately, Turkish NAVTEX notifications and vessels such as the ‘Oruc Reiss’ or the evocative ‘Barbaross’, had become household names in Brussels.
In March 2020, we had a major crisis. Also through powerful media mobilisation, Turkey’s highest authorities encouraged migrants and refugees to advance towards the Greek borders and try to enter into the European Union. Greek authorities responded with determination, repelling the push and the European Union responded with full political solidarity. The President of the European Council and the President of the Commission, joined by the President of the European Parliament, travelled immediately to the Greek northern border in those difficult moments. I joined President Michel shortly thereafter in Ankara and we had intense exchanges with President Erdogan and other Turkish authorities. This was followed a few days later by a visit from President Erdogan to Brussels.
Stability at the border was re-established. At Turkey’s request, the EU provided clarifications on the implementation of support measures to refugees hosted by Turkey. We also pursued discussions on how to return to a positive agenda. While Turkey seemed to be looking for a strong political recommitment, I was keener to advance on the practical implementation of the 2016 joint statement. We reviewed the state of play including the effective disbursement of our support to the Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey and agreed that further efforts were required on both sides to bring all these efforts back on track.
Drilling vessels and anachronisms of vestiges of war
Nevertheless, the continuous deployment of Turkish drilling and exploratory vessels, be it in waters adjoining Cyprus or Greece, created a very negative environment that impeded the development of a positive agenda. This led me to travel to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey in late June. My goal was clear: I wanted to explore with the main protagonists the possibilities of launching a real dialogue that would help address the outstanding issues. In addition to the strong support by both the President of the European Council and the President of the Commission, I also want to highlight here the notable diplomatic energy invested by Germany, starting with Chancellor Merkel and my good friend and colleague Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
"I wanted to explore with the main protagonists the possibilities of launching a real dialogue that would help address the outstanding issues."
I visited the Northern border of Greece, and flew as close as possible to the drilling platforms deployed by Turkey in an area close to the coast of Cyprus. I also had a night walk across the green line in Nicosia and saw the abandoned town of Varosha from a helicopter within Cypriot-controlled territory. The anachronism of these vestiges of war, frozen in the past, and testimony of a still unsolved conflict in the midst of the European Union, were profoundly disturbing and revealing. There had been no progress whatsoever since I last visited Varosha in 2005 as President of the European Parliament. If anything, this visit further strengthened my determination to look for solutions.
While the relationship with Turkey is very complex, and has many dimensions, I reached the conclusion that disagreements with Greece and the non-resolution of the Cyprus issue are centerpieces. My July trip to Ankara confirmed this, with foreign minister Çavusoglu underlining the role of Turkey in the protection of the rights of Turkish Cypriots and explaining Turkish views on the exploitation of resources in Cypriot waters. On his side, the Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, offered me a detailed presentation, from the Turkish perspective, of the incident a few weeks earlier between a French frigate and a group of Turkish naval units.
Minister Çavusoglu bid me farewell in a joint press conference where he criticised harshly some member states, as well as the EU itself, denouncing biased and unfriendly attitudes vis-a-vis Turkey. I preferred to respond with the language of diplomacy, although the tone and formulations used by my Turkish host raised questions on whether this would be enough.
I do not want to continue with a blow-by-blow account of my various efforts trying to help find space for renewed bilateral dialogue between Greece and Turkey on maritime disputes and confidence building measures, or on discussing how to support UN efforts in relaunching the Cyprus settlement talks. Suffice it to say here that channelling both issues through appropriate diplomatic and technical processes is essential to create space for a healthy EU-Turkey relationship. These are questions that can no longer be postponed.
My trip to Malta in mid-August, to meet with Minister Çavusoglu turned short due to the signature of a maritime delimitation agreement between Greece and Egypt. Turkey‘s response was to suspend a foreseen renewal of exploratory talks with Greece aimed at addressing maritime differences accompanied by the relaunch of Turkish provocative maritime activity. This has only confirmed my conviction regarding the centrality these two issues have gained in the EU-Turkey relationship.
Turkey’s international agenda
The relationship with Turkey has deep historical roots. Its present direction of travel, however, seems to take it further away from the EU. This concerns its internal developments, notably regarding fundamental freedoms, but also Turkey’s external engagement. The latter has gained further relevance in 2020, be it in Syria and Iraq, in Libya, where it has turned the tables in very difficult moments for the Government of National Accord, or in Nagorno-Karabakh, where its support has resulted in a major victory for Azerbaijan.
I could go on and mention its projection in Eastern Africa, in the Sahel or in the Western Balkans. Turkey has become a regional power to be reckoned with and has scored undeniable successes. Unfortunately, in quite a few cases, Turkey’s international agenda is not well aligned with the EU’s and its methods are not those of the EU. Strong Turkish resistance to/and criticism of EU naval operation Irini, reveals fundamental differences in our understanding of UN Security Council resolution imposing on arms embargo on Libya.
"Turkey has become a regional power to be reckoned with, but its international agenda is not well aligned with the EU’s and its methods are not those of the EU."
All this raises fundamental questions regarding Turkey’s objectives. And the fact that Turkey is a candidate to EU accession, places the EU in a position where it is entitled to ask those questions. There is no doubt that we have much progress to make in conducting an honest and profound dialogue with Turkey on these matters, and Turkey in providing responses.
While I truly welcome statements by Turkish officials, even at the highest level, proclaiming the strategic interest of Turkey in joining the EU, it is important that those statements are followed by actions that confirm such intentions. At the same time, relations cannot be a one-way street. The EU also has to show Turkey that it would be welcomed as a family member if it meets its side of the bargain. This is where the positive agenda agreed in the joint statement of 2016 plays a vital role.
Cooperation and trust to get out of this negative trend
We have to find a way out of tit-for-tat dynamics and get back to cooperation and trust. This was the main message of the October European Council and this message has been repeated last week. I believe there is greater understanding for this on Turkey’s side today than in October.
Still, the situation has not fundamentally improved. Hence, our overall assessment of the year must be negative. But we do also have a chance to redress things and this is what we must do.
There is a high probability that, if we continue in this downward spiral, the EU will have to adopt strong measures, to convince Turkey that it is serious and determined to ensure respect for our interests. I will report on this to European leaders in March 2021.
A strong cooperative relationship with Turkey would constitute a major contribution to European stability. Likewise, it will be difficult for Turkey to find a better partner than the EU
As I said, a strong cooperative relationship with Turkey would constitute a major contribution to European stability. Likewise, it will be difficult for Turkey to find a better partner than the EU. Our economies are tied, the EU is by far Turkey’s number one import and export partner, as well as source of investments. EU goods exports to Turkey in 2019 stood at €68bn, while imports from Turkey were €70bn, and so are our societies, with many citizens living, working and traveling across our borders.
Turkey’s prosperity and security, as a NATO ally, requires a strong relationship with the EU. There are no sustainable alternatives to this. And a great part of its society, according to most recent polls, still looks towards the EU as an useful example for further development.
We have a chance still to redirect our relations. The EU extends an open hand to Turkey hoping it will seize it, and the agenda presented by EU leaders is clear. I am ready, working together with the Commission and member states, to discuss our proposals for a positive agenda with Turkey and explore ways of bringing our relations forward. This could also include enhancing regional cooperation through an Eastern Mediterranean Conference. But for all this to happen, actions that may be considered aggressive or contrary to EU interests have to stop.
We need to ensure the renewal of dialogue with Greece and the relaunch of the Cyprus settlement talks, in the understanding that they too must reach a satisfactory conclusion and cannot go on endlessly. Time is not our friend in this case. And yes, we must have a strong and frank dialogue on the regional conflicts and develop a greater common understanding on how to address them in a manner that will respect mutual interests.
"We have a chance still to redirect our relations. The EU extends an open hand to Turkey hoping it will seize it."
Some may think that I am a dreamer and that this agenda simply cannot materialise. It will certainly not happen unless we try. Beyond clear steps from Turkey and a change of its negative actions and rhetoric of the last months, we need to find a way to get back to honest and effective dialogues and efforts, and strong engagement and commitment from all sides, including from the most-affected EU member states. We need to bring back the energy in our talks with each other, not about each other,
Frankly speaking, we can either move towards a mutually beneficial agenda or suffer the consequences of our reciprocal misunderstandings. I have no hesitation regarding my own choice.
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