Amid Fresh Turkish Provocations, EU Reports ‘Positive Steps’ in Relationship

By James Carstensen | March 22, 2021 | 10:13pm EDT
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pictured here in Ankara last month, made reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque a campaign pledge when running for re-election in 2018. (Photo by Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,. (Photo by Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin ( – The European Union has unveiled a plan to “incentivize closer E.U.-Turkey ties” in response to what is views as a “calmer, more constructive attitude” from Ankara on various issues. At the same time, the plan calls for “restrictive measures” to be made ready, should Turkey resume provocations.

The report was released as the E.U. expressed frustration over Turkey’s decision to withdraw from a European women’s rights convention, and moves to ban a pro-Kurdish opposition party.

“To deepen the present momentum and incentivize closer E.U.-Turkey ties across the board, we believe that the Union should put a number of possible areas of cooperation on the table,” said the report, drawn up by the E.U. Commission and E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell for member-states governments.

It cited easing tensions over competing gas exploration claims in the eastern Mediterranean, with the relaunching of talks between Turkey and E.U. member Greece in January.

The report acknowledged, however, that the process of de-escalation was “fragile,” and suggested restrictive measures be imposed should Turkey “return to renewed unilateral actions or provocations … aimed at causing prejudice to the interests of the E.U. and its member states.”

In contrast to the cautious optimism in the report, E.U. leaders have reacted with dismay to steps taken by Turkey over the past few days.

Borrell said in a statement Monday that Turkey’s decision to pull out of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, and its threat to shut down the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), were moves “taking Turkey out of the European path.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a decree Saturday annulled Turkey’s participation in the treaty, which happens to have been established in Turkey and is known as the Istanbul Convention. He gave no reason, but conservative religious leaders have complained the convention undermines traditional family values.

Last week, the E.U. and U.S. criticized the Turkish Parliament for HDP lawmaker Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu of his seat and signaling plans to ban the party outright. Ankara accuses the party of links to the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The new E.U. report appears designed to strike a delicate balancing act between the reported “positive steps” while addressing concerns over deteriorating rule of law and respect for human rights in Turkey, a country that has long sought accession to the union.

The E.U. remains Turkey’s largest trading partner, while Turkey is also a NATO ally, and party to a critical migrant agreement aimed at stemming irregular migrant flows into the E.U.

At the same time, escalating tensions over gas exploration in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus last year, and an erosion of democracy at home, have deeply concerned E.U. officials.

Incentives suggested in the report include the modernization and expansion of the E.U.-Turkey Customs Union, revision of the migration agreement to make it more mutually beneficial” and restarting “previously suspended high-level dialogues.”

It says such incentives should come only in response to “concrete steps,” including Turkey refraining from gas exploration in disputed waters and from barring the return to Turkish soil of migrants who have made their way to nearby Greek islands.

Should further restrictions be deemed necessary, the report proposes that these could include limiting bilateral economic cooperation, and measures such as bans or prohibitions targeting important sectors of the Turkish economy such as tourism or energy. Such measures should be “reversible.”

At the last E.U. summit on Turkey, last December, leaders narrowly defeated a call by Greece and Cyprus for sanctions. Opposition was led by Germany, which sought to keep communication channels open with a “positive agenda.”

Foundation for Defense of Democracies scholar Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament, said the E.U.’s failure to impose even symbolic sanctions merely bolstered Ankara’s recent moves.

He said it was no coincidence that the government moved against Gergerlioglu and the HDP two days before Erdogan held a videoconference with the E.U.’s top two leaders, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council head Charles Michel.

“The day after the call, Erdogan has singlehandedly withdrawn Turkey from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, which the Turkish parliament had adopted unanimously in 2012,” he said.

Erdemir said the E.U.-Turkey migration agreement had given Turkey significant leverage in its dealings with the E.U.

“The Turkish president feels that as long as he continues to weaponize nearly four million displaced Syrians who currently reside in Turkey under a temporary protection regime, the European Union will continue to appease him, granting him impunity.”

In that sense, he said, the E.U. had been complicit in Turkey’s democratic backsliding, become a legitimizing force which Erdogan’s government taps into from time to time to burnish its image.

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