European Union leaders on Tuesday said the bloc is ready to support a concrete and positive agenda with Turkey, especially in the areas of economic cooperation and migration, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Ankara to discuss bilateral ties and seek a way forward after tensions rose high last year.
Michel said they had a frank discussion with President Erdoğan on the future of EU-Turkey relations, while von der Leyen said the meeting aimed to give ties “new momentum.”
Speaking on the main agenda that covered Turkey-EU relations last year, the Eastern Mediterranean, Michel stated: “We welcome a continuation of exploratory talks and the visit of the Greek foreign minister. We have witnessed a de-escalation, this is a positive development.” He also welcomed the upcoming Cyprus talks to take place under the auspices of the United Nations.
The EU’s strategic interest, security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean is of mutual benefit and helps positive relations with Turkey, Michel added.
Sustained de-escalation is needed to build a more constructive agenda. pic.twitter.com/pNyQPwUc5m
— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) April 6, 2021
Years of disagreements over a growing list of issues threatened to boil over last summer when Turkey sent navy ships to support an energy exploration mission in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey withdrew the vessels, somewhat cooling tensions, and this year participated in the first maritime talks with Greece since 2016.
Turkey and EU member Greece have been at odds on several issues. Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims made by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).In order to find a solution to the dispute that favors all parties, last year Turkey also proposed holding a conference with the participation of each Mediterranean nation, including the Turkish Cypriots, but the EU has yet to provide a concrete answer to the proposal.
Michel stated that foreign policy issues were also on the agenda of the visit. “Differences remain in foreign policy issues,” he said, highlighting that areas of cooperation also exist especially in Libya, where the war-torn country has entered a path to normalcy and elections. He reiterated, “All foreign fighters and troops must leave Libyan territory.”
Erdoğan also pointed to the need for cooperation against terrorism for permanent stability and security. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination processes and areas of possible cooperation were also touched upon.
“The EU is Turkey’s number one import and export partner,” von der Leyen stated, emphasizing the role of economic relations in bilateral ties. She stated that the EU will work on updating the customs union with Turkey by addressing challenges in its implementation. Michel, for his part, stated that the council invited the commission to start preparatory work in this regard.
Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın, following the meeting said, Erdoğan conveyed to the EU leaders that Turkey’s final goal was full accession to the bloc. It was also reiterated that the EU must take concrete steps to support the positive agenda.
Both the EU and Turkey have voiced their intentions to set a positive agenda, yet further efforts and actions are needed. 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 action to this end.
During the latest summit of EU leaders on March 25-26, the bloc expressed that it is ready to boost cooperation with Turkey if the “current de-escalation is sustained.”
Turkey has underlined that it wants to push forward from the “positive” talks and has called for “concrete action” – particularly when it comes to migration.
Apart from further cooperation on migration and updating the March 18 statement, Ankara expects the modernization of the 1995 customs union and greater emphasis on Turkey’s candidacy to become an EU member.
Regarding cooperation on migration, von der Leyen stated: “We will continue to support refugees and host communities.” Von der Leyen added that the European Commission will soon make a proposal that reflects support for refugees in Turkey.
“The commission will soon make a proposal that reflects … principles” including better opportunities for refugees and a Turkish commitment to prevent irregular departures, she said. “I am very much committed to ensuring the continuity of European funding.”
Ankara’s adherence to the 2016 migrant agreement would be a “major show of goodwill,” the commission head stated further.
Von der Leyen said respect for fundamental rights and rule of law are crucial and that she was deeply worried about Turkey’s decision last month to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, which aims to protect women from violence.
Turkey, on the other hand, said everybody must respect the country’s judicial processes. Erdoğan said violence against women is a global problem and that Turkey will continue to fight it decisively.
By strengthening judicial mechanisms around the existing laws, violence against women will be fought more effectively, the president added.
In September 2015, the image of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey sent shock waves across the world. Six months later, Turkish and EU leaders inked a migration agreement that stipulated that Ankara would 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, with the bloc fearing more refugees from Syria’s Idlib.
The border crisis was interrupted by the outbreak of the pandemic.
Çavuşoğlu meets General Assembly’s Bozkır
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Tuesday met with Volkan Bozkır, the Turkish diplomat currently heading the U.N. General Assembly, in the capital Ankara.
“Met with Volkan Bozkır who pays his 1st official visit to Turkey as President of 75th U.N. General Assembly. Under his leadership (in the U.N. General Assembly) works uninterrupted despite pandemic,” Çavuşoğlu said on Twitter.
“Our leading role in U.N. & our support to Amb. Bozkır will continue. Will make Istanbul U.N. hub,” Çavuşoğlu added.
-Under his leadership UNGA works uninterrupted despite pandemic.
-Our leading role in UN&our support to Amb.Bozkir will continue.
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) April 6, 2021
Earlier on Tuesday, Bozkır visited Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey.
On Monday, Bozkır arrived in Ankara to start his official visit.
He is expected to meet with Erdoğan and Parliament Speaker Mustafa Şentop and later address the Turkish Parliament.
This Saturday, Bozkır is set to visit Turkey’s southern province of Hatay, on the Syrian frontier, where he will see U.N. cross-border aid operations and inspect temporary shelter facilities.