Tables have turned: EU is handling Turkey issue together with Washington

"It's an issue that goes beyond merely European and Turkish interests," the officials added. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS]

Turkey is not just a European-Turkish issue, but also an issue in our transatlantic partnership, and obviously, our partnership with NATO, senior EU officials told journalists, signalling a shift of policy under the new US administration.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held on Friday (19 March) a video conference with Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The EU stated it was important to sustain de-escalation and “further strengthening confidence building to allow for a more positive EU-Turkey agenda.”

“They also discussed a possible visit to Turkey following the March EU summit”, the short EU statement says, signalling that Erdoğan, who insists of a summit with EU leaders, has had its way.

Tables have turned with the new US administration which appears to rediscover Turkey as an important ally in the context of tensions with Russia and a low in relations with Saudi Arabia.

“We are having very close contact with our American friends on the file to exchange on how we work together with Turkey, both in the transatlantic context, in the NATO context,” the officials said ahead of a crucial EU summit next week.

“It’s an issue that goes beyond merely European and Turkish interests,” the officials added.

It is unclear however how the thaw in relations with Turkey could affect Greece.

Earlier this week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told EU lawmakers that he had “serious concerns” over Ankara’s actions.

“I have expressed my serious concerns, and we all know there are serious differences and some issues, ranging from the eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish decision to buy the Russian air defence system S-400 or related to democratic rights in Turkey,” Stoltenberg told a joint session of the foreign affairs and defence committees in the European Parliament.

NATO last year set up a “de-confliction mechanism” to try to avoid clashes between Turkey and Greece as tensions spiked over the eastern Mediterranean and the stand-off has since calmed.

“But I believe NATO at least can provide an important platform for discussing these issues, raising these issues and having serious debates and discussions about different concerns,” he added, insisting the alliance was an important platform for resolving disputes involving Ankara.

However, diplomats from both NATO members failed to reach a breakthrough on Tuesday during the latest round of talks on their stand-off over eastern Mediterranean borders and energy rights.

At the 10 December summit, EU leaders postponed once again a decision to impose sanctions on Turkey for its “unauthorised” activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. The conclusions also suggested that Europe should wait for the new US administration in order to have an aligned approach with Washington over the issue.

Sources close to the matter suggest that the new US administration has told Europeans to keep a low profile with Ankara and avoid a risk pushing her toward Moscow.

“Considering that Biden is not planning to have as good relations as Trump had with Saudi Arabia, there will be none to counter-balance Turkey. So, Turkey must come closer to the West,” the sources said.

EU hopes for de-escalation 

EU leaders are set to discuss the state of relations with Ankara as one of the issues at their summit in Brussels next week.

“By discussing the eastern Mediterranean issue primarily, we will have the opportunity to discuss all our issues once again, from the expectations of Turkey, as a NATO ally, from the EU, to the visa liberalisation and Customs Union issues,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying before his teleconference with Michel and von der Leyen.

Speaking at a visit to the EU’s command centre of Operation Irini, the bloc’s military mission to implement a UN arms embargo on Libya, Borrell said that “on Turkey, we have a momentum, a good momentum, following their exploratory talks with Greece”.

“I will present a report to the EU leaders, where I will outline current trends and suggest a way ahead to consolidate a constructive attitude, while at the same time being ready to take measures if necessary,” he added.

EU foreign ministers on Monday will have a preliminary discussion about parts of the report, which according to senior EU officials includes “different elements that are creating difficulties in the relationship”.

This would range from a political perspective, including eastern Mediterranean issues, the Cyprus question and what role Ankara is playing in regional conflicts Nagorno-Karabakh in Syria, Iraq or Libya, “where Turkey has been pursuing policies that are not always aligned with the policies of the EU”, as well as domestic developments in Turkey itself.

“As requested by the European Council, the report looks into different options, to continue to try to encourage the further development of what we hope, and we want to be a good relationship and a strong relationship with Turkey,” the senior EU officials said.

However, EU diplomats are unconvinced there can be a positive breakthrough in the relations any time soon.

“Turkey’s actions have improved, but there is still lots to do,” a senior EU official said speaking to reporters on Thursday, adding that there’s still a wide range of issues standing in their way.

“The discussion is likely to touch on the recent exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece and the forthcoming resumption of Cyprus settlement process as well as regional developments such as those in Libya,” the official added.

At the same time, Ankara has repeatedly urged the EU to update a 2016 migrant deal under which Turkey has curbed entries into Europe in exchange for EU financial support.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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