After over a year of tensions, the European Union (EU) has offered an olive branch to reset relations with Turkey and relaunch bilateral cooperation on specific crucial dossiers. Although profound divergences between the two persist, realpolitik seems to have prevailed in Brussels as Turkey remains a strategic player in the enlarged Mediterranean region, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Several issues are at stake here: migration; the exploration and exploitation of energy resources; the delimitation of disputed maritime borders and exclusive economic zones (EEZ); the unsolved question of Cyprus; and, last but not least, the stability of Libya. In all these dossiers the EU has to deal with Turkey. While it is unanimously considered as a difficult partner, a common approach towards Ankara has not always been easy to reach among the EU member states.
Last summer, in the peak of the escalation of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean, the EU unanimously condemned as unacceptable Turkey’s unilateral explorations activities, deemed in violation of the territorial sovereignty of two member states, Cyprus and Greece. However, the EU member states disagreed on the best approach to adopt vis-à-vis Ankara. Divisions were evident at the European Council in October: on one side, Greece, Cyprus, France, and Austria supported a firm position and the adoption of sanctions as the main way to push Ankara to refrain from unilateral actions and engage in negotiations with its neighbours. On the other side, other countries led by Germany were in favour of a more cautious stance and the search for a way out through dialogue.
Since then, these two options remained on the table until the European Council in March. At the same time, diplomacy on both sides has worked intensively to defuse tensions and open room for dialogue. Over the last few months, several moves – from the stop of Turkey’s drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean to the resumption of bilateral talks between Ankara and Athens on disputed maritime borders, although positions continue to remain very distant – have contributed to favour a de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean and to create the basic conditions for a new diplomatic momentum.
For its part, Turkey did not miss the opportunity for a rapprochement with the EU, looking at both its economic downturn and the new course inaugurated by the new Biden administration in Washington, not to mention the desire to break its regional isolation. It is not the first time that, during hard times, Turkey has turned back to Brussels. Indeed, although the accession negotiations have been stalled for several years and their resumption is not currently under discussion, economic relations with Europe continue to be crucial for Turkey. At the same time, mending the rift with the EU could set the stage for a reset of relations with the United States. A task that looks very challenging, considering that the new Biden administration is less benevolent than its predecessor, placing human rights and democratic values at the core of US foreign policy.
Against this backdrop, the EU presented its “positive agenda” to relaunch relations with Turkey at the EU Council in March. While the option of a constructive dialogue eventually prevailed, the positive agenda maintains a “stick and carrot approach”, including both incentives and sanctions. Certainly, it will not be an easy process, as the level of mistrust between the EU and Turkey is still high. However, from a EU perspective, it appears to be the only way to reassess cooperation with Turkey. This process of rapprochement, as detailed in the joint report by the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell published on the eve of the European Council, will be “gradual, proportional and reversible”. As such, with pragmatism seemingly prevailing in the European approach — considering the number of interests at stake — the adoption of restrictive measures is explicitly included in case Turkey does not engage in a “constructive partnership” and “derail” from the process.
Stronger economic relations, the modernization of the Customs Union in force since 1996, and cooperation in the management of migration flows based on March 2016 Agreement have been identified as the main issues of this enhanced cooperation. Not surprising, given that economy and migration have long been at the top of both sides’ agendas in their bilateral relations. From an economic point of view, with trade amounting to 143 billion euros in 2020, the European Union remains by far Ankara's first trading partner, while European states are major investors in the country. On the migration front, the EU intends to continue to rely on Turkey to stop illegal migration flows and to provide Syrian refugees with assistance. Brussels, which has already allocated 6 billion euros, is likely to extend funding for basic services, education, and health care for Syrian refugees in Turkey (over 3.6 million), Lebanon (865,531) and Jordan (665,404), too. However, this agreement has received criticism over the years, especially from the Turkish front. Nonetheless, Ankara has not hesitated to use the issue of migrants as a tool of political pressure against the EU.
While strong pragmatism seems to prevail in the resumption of bilateral dialogue, rule of law, compliance to fundamental rights, and democratic values remain critical aspects in EU-Turkey relationship. On several occasions, Brussels has expressed concern towards Turkey’s estrangement from European principles, continued backsliding in the field of rule of law, and crackdown on opposition and on the media. In fact, in contrast with the positive agenda, the European Parliament’s Report on Turkey, adopted with 480 votes in favour, 64 against and 150 abstentions on 18 May, called for the suspension of Turkey’s EU accession negotiation unless Ankara’s record on these matters is “urgently and consistently reversed”. Although the European Parliament’s vote is not binding, it highlights the vast discrepancies between different EU institutions in dealing with Turkey. While divisions, both internally and in foreign policy, have never benefited the effectiveness and credibility of the EU’s external action, the need to follow a common approach is an essential prerequisite to put a process on the right track.