Relations between the European Union and Turkey are "not good at the moment”

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell acknowledges the open tension with Ankara ahead of the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels
Banderas de la Unión Europea y de Turquía en el distrito comercial y financiero de Levent en Estambul

REUTERS/OSMAN ORSAL  -   European Union and Turkish flags in the commercial and financial district of Levent in Istanbul

A meeting between the foreign ministers of the European Union Member States began in Brussels on Monday July 13 to discuss issues on the international agenda, but the focus will be on tension arising with Turkey in recent times on several open fronts, such as the civil war in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. "Relations between the EU and Turkey are not good at the moment", Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, openly acknowledged before the meeting.

Within the community sphere, France has been the country to confront the Eurasian nation the most, for certain reasons: on the one hand, they support opposing sides in the Libyan conflict - Paris the National Liberation Army (LNA) commanded by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and Ankara the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. On the other hand, regarding an incident that occurred in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, in which Turkish ships harassed a French military vessel participating in a NATO mission. This led, for example, to France's temporary withdrawal from Operation Sea Guardian, and to an escalation of tensions between the two administrations, with harsh crossings of accusations such as "Turkey's actions in Libya are unacceptable and intolerable" and "France 'wants to divide' war-torn Libya in attempt to go back to 'old colonial times'. In addition, Paris has stated its intention to create a Euro-Arab coalition to counteract Ankara's growing influence in Mare Nostrum, a project in which it already has the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among others. 

El alto representante de la UE para Asuntos Exteriores y Política de Seguridad, Josep Borrell, a su llegada a la reunión en Bruselas, el 13 de julio de 2020
AP/VIRGINIA MAYO - The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, on his arrival at the meeting in Brussels on 13 July 2020

The French government, now headed by Jean Castex, has urged both NATO and the EU to take a tougher stance against Turkey and to condemn its interference in the region by imposing sanctions. This has also been advocated by Greece and Cyprus, whose relationship with the Eurasian nation has cooled in recent times due to Turkish drilling for gas in the eastern Mediterranean, specifically in waters that belong to the Greek and Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone or which are still in dispute. In fact, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias assured Greece would ask the EU to prepare a list of “very powerful measures” against Turkey in case it infringes on Greek sovereign rights with its drilling for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, as reported by local broadcaster Skai.

However, the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey will respond with its own steps if the European Union imposes further sanctions on Ankara, something that could have forced the EU to back down despite French insistence on the sensitive issues on which the EU sphere depends on Ankara, such as the migration crisis. It should be remembered at this point that the country presided over by Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been able to take advantage of this asset to put pressure on Europe in its own interests. The episode that took place last March, when the Turkish authorities reopened their borders to allow the passage of migrants towards Community territory, causing up to 35,000 people to be trapped at the gates of Greece, is an example of this. "We will not accept that refugees are used as a bargaining tool," Borrell said at the time.

Refugiados y migrantes en la frontera entre Turquía y Grecia, el 5 de marzo de 2020
AFP/BULENT KILIC - Refugees and migrants on the Turkish-Greek border, 5 March 2020

But nothing could be further from the truth: in these five months, Turkey has received substantial funds from Brussels for the management of migration on its soil. The latest financial deployment was announced this Sunday, on the day before the meeting of the foreign ministers - a coincidence? European Emergency Response Coordinator Janez Lenarcic announced that 485 million euros will be sent to the Eurasian nation to "ensure urgent humanitarian aid to refugees" whose situation has worsened due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Since 2016 Ankara has received more than 6 billion euros from Europe as a result of the agreement signed with the EU to stop the flow of migrants to EU territory.

For all these reasons, it is not unreasonable to think that Cavosuglu's message could have deterred the European External Action Service from imposing further sanctions against Turkey. In fact, a senior EU official quoted in the media by Ekathimerini has revealed that there is "no intention to put on the table" the possibility of sanctioning Ankara, either for its activity in the eastern Mediterranean or for its repeated violations of the arms embargo on Libya since 2011, even though it has put at risk the EU's recently launched Irini mission, launched to ensure this UN-approved measure. The source also revealed that the EU is expected to make symbolic "good will" gestures toward Turkey, with the purpose "to unblock a very difficult relationship" that has been downgraded in the past few years.

El buque de perforación turco Fatih frente a Chipre, el 24 de junio de 2019
PHOTO/AFP - The Turkish drilling ship Fatih off Cyprus, 24 June 2019

Last week, European Commission sources quoted by Euractiv also relegated the adoption of sanctions against Turkey to the background. “Any minister who wants to can raise the issue of sanctions. But the primary goal of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell is to receive a clear and unanimous mandate from member states to start a dialogue with Ankara,” sources said. "Dialogue should be a priority in the face of Turkey's increasingly challenging behaviour. For Brussels, the first priority is to reach an agreement when it comes to Turkey’s announced illegal drillings for oil and gas in the Mediterranean, which involve territorial waters of Greece and Cyprus." they said. "Borrell is expected to present “concrete ideas” on this matter, as Brussels believes that if a solution is found, this would eventually help unlock other issues related to the Turkish involvement in Syria".

Laura Batalla Adam, secretary general of the European Union Turkey Forum, said relations between the two sides had been at their lowest point for several years now. "The political situation in the country and its estrangement from EU values have been the main cause of concern for Brussels,” she told Arab News. “Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy today is creating new frictions in the relationship", she said in a statement picked up by Arab News. "In times like these, dialogue is more important than ever. We need more cooperation rather than confrontation with Turkey,” she said. “However, this cooperation needs to be based on values and not only on interests".  

Banderas de Turquía y Europa antes de la sesión de apertura de una reunión de alto nivel en Estambul, el 28 de febrero de 2019
AP/LEFTERIS PITARAKIS - Turkish and European flags before the opening session of a high-level meeting in Istanbul on 28 February 2019

Cavusoglu, in an opinion column published in Politico on Monday, claims the existence of "common ground on which to build", although he admits that "relations with the EU are tense" and rejects all the accusations that France, Greece and Cyprus have made against him. "We must not be sucked into the maelstrom that is pitting us against each other. Europe needs constructive strategies prioritizing win-win formulas for Turkey, rather than reactive steps for the sake of EU solidarity and the narrow-minded expectations of a few countries. [...] So let us look ahead and build an inclusive framework to capitalize on the genuine transformative power of Turkey-EU cooperation in our common neighborhood. That would be the right mindset — especially in the troubled waters of the post-pandemic era" concludes the Turkish Foreign Minister in the same publication.  

Turkey does not seem to be willing to abandon EU accession process, and the EU seems to be understanding that an even worse confrontation with Turkey, a superpower in the Mediterranean, is much more harmful than beneficial, especially in view of the upcoming post-pandemic world, where less tension and more cooperation are needed. Meanwhile, we will have to wait for the conclusions of the meeting in Brussels.