Bridges Across the Aegean

Bridges Across the Aegean
Can Ankara and Brussels overcome strategic disagreements to script a new chapter in their bilateral relations?

After what has been a tense interlude in EU-Turkey ties, both parties seem poised to usher in a new era of dialogue and negotiation. Only recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had concluded a two-day official visit to Brussels, where he met with the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen. The meetings were described as ‘open, honest, and positive’, with both sides pledging to continue their deliberations and engage in concrete actions moving forward.

The relatively cold ties between Ankara and Brussels had shown signs of thawing as early as in December 2020. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had indicated in a speech then that Turkey's future lay in the West. Meanwhile, the European Union had also suspended its punitive sanctions against Turkey over the Eastern Mediterranean dispute, despite strong pressure from France, Greece, and the Greek Cypriot administration. This conciliatory trend continued well into the new year as President Erdoğan held a video conference with the EC president and discussed ways to develop mutual relations.

However, it will not be easy to reset ties between the two behemoths. Issues pertaining to the contested maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, a stalemate in Turkey’s accession to the EU, as well as the refugee and migrant crisis are likely to be sticking points in their relationship. This explains why Europe’s reaction to the developing situation has been rather cautious. Unless the rhetoric of rapprochement translates to tangible outcomes, Ankara’s latest charm offensive may come to nought.

MEDITERRANEAN STAND-OFF

For several decades, disputes over sovereignty and related rights in the Aegean Sea had poisoned relations between Greece and Turkey. In fact, bilateral negotiations were suspended since 2016, after 60 rounds of talks between the two sides had proved to be futile. Although the talks were sought to be resumed in 2020, the deployment of a Turkish seismic exploration vessel in disputed waters upended these plans. Strongly backed by France, the administrations of Greece and Greek Cypriot had pushed for sanctions against Turkey, due to its alleged ‘provocative’ acts of oil and gas exploration.

While the EU proceeded to draw up a list of Turkish targets for sanctions, including trade tariffs and an arms embargo, this was subsequently postponed to March 2021. It is believed that countries like Germany and Italy had been reluctant to go ahead with such punitive measures. There is also speculation that the EU intends to consult the new American administration before imposing sanctions that threaten NATO ties.

In one of the most significant breakthroughs yet, Ankara and Athens also held an exploratory talk on January 25 after a hiatus of almost five years. Reports indicate that the talks were held in a positive atmosphere. It is hoped that this can pave the way for more extensive consultation that devises a permanent solution to the Mediterranean crisis, based on international law and good neighbourly conduct.

It will, however, be a testing time for the two parties as there are already disagreements about the issues that need to be addressed in the coming months. While Greece insists that the talks be limited to the delimitation of maritime zones, Turkey wants to address the whole range of issues in the Aegean Sea, including demilitarisation of islands, the width of national air space, and the legal status of geographical formations. In any case, it is in the interest of both sides to aggressively pursue dialogue that aims to achieve a sustainable and equitable solution.

ACCESSION OVERDUE

From many of the recent statements made by top Turkish diplomats, it is clear that Ankara is looking to extract a revival of accession talks from the EU. After all, it has had the longest history of negotiating membership with the bloc. Although it had applied for official candidacy in 1987, it was granted the status of a candidate country only in 1999. Even after that, it had had to wait for another six years before negotiations could actually start.

The declaration of a ‘state of emergency’ in Turkey, after an attempted coup by the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) did little to speed up the accession process. As can be recalled, the European Parliament had been unhappy with the emergency, which it is perceived as ‘authoritarian’ and an ‘erosion of the rule of law’. It had consequently suspended accession talks with Ankara.

Now, with a softening of tone between the two neighbours, Turkey hopes to revitalise these talks. As opposed to being a part of the EU’s foreign policy, it wishes to be treated as a negotiating candidate member. If nothing, this can at least amount to good optics. Visa liberalisation and modernising of the 1995 Customs Union agreement with the EU are some of the other issues on its radar.

MIGRATION QUANDARY

The question of Syrian migration has proven to be another snag in bilateral relations. In 2016, Ankara and Brussels had made a deal to reduce the influx of irregular migrants taking the Aegean Sea route to Europe. Under the accord, EU countries had promised billions of Euros as financial aid to Turkey, in return for the latter halting refugees who attempted to enter Europe. The money was to be employed for the benefit of those immigrants who had settled down in Turkey.

Despite this agreement, however, the receipt of the promised funds was mired in bureaucratic hurdles, much to the chagrin of Ankara. It is estimated that the EU spent only half of what was stated in the contract for Syrian refugees. Pointing out that the bloc needs to do more, Turkey is all set to discuss the renewal of this migration accord. As remarked by President Erdoğan, ‘the year 2021 offers a productive environment for new cooperation to be initiated in the field of migration’. It remains to be seen how the two partners translate this shift in tonality to credible gestures on the ground.

Assessment

  • As Ankara and Brussels prepare to undertake negotiations, it is important to strictly regulate the Islamophobic rhetoric emanating from Europe. Unless this is achieved, it can severely undermine the ongoing efforts, since Turkey often finds itself at the receiving end of such prejudices. At the same time, it is contingent on Turkey to tone down its aggressive manoeuvres in the Middle East which threaten to destabilise the region.
  • Given that Turkey has initiated a domestic reform process which includes economic revival, it will be important to examine how this reflects in its bilateral trading ties with the EU. In particular, its manufacturing industries, as well as import-export networks, have been projected as a win-win scenario for both parties.
  • With transatlantic ties between the U.S. and Europe expected to take an optimistic turn, Ankara’s relations with Brussels might be partially dependant on its equation with Washington. The possibility of ‘Western powers’ coordinating their strategies vis à vis perceived threats, like Turkey or Iran, cannot be underestimated. In this regard, the position adopted by the Biden administration towards the imposition of CAATSA sanctions on Turkey will be keenly watched.

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