EU-Turkey: A showdown in Brussels 

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The leaders of Turkey, Germany, France and Russia meet in Istanbul [EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV]

The question of whether to impose sanctions against Turkey will test how far EU leaders are prepared to support President Erdogan’s “repressive form of rule”. writes Robert Ellis.

Robert Ellis is a member of the advisory board at Vocal Europe in Brussels.

The forthcoming meeting of the European Council on 10-11 December will represent a turning point in the relations between the EU and Turkey. The agenda is crowded: COVID-19, climate change, trade, security and external relations. In the latter category, the standoff with Turkey will play a prominent role.

The overriding issue will be to decide whether or not to impose sanctions on Turkey for its aggressive policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and violation of Greece and Cyprus’ maritime zones.

The Council already agreed at the beginning of October that the EU would latest at its December meeting make use of the full panoply of sanctions available to it if Turkey continued with its unilateral actions and breach of international law.

The European Parliament has in a resolution adopted by 631 votes called for the Council to impose tough sanctions on Turkey in response not only to its illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean but also its activities in Varosha, a fenced-off suburb of Famagusta in Cyprus, seized after the Turkish occupation in 1974.

This resolution has preempted the draft report and motion for a resolution prepared by the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Apart from repeating the call for the suspension of accession talks with Turkey, it gives a detailed account of Turkey’s regression from European values and standards.

It also talks of exploring possible new models for future relations. However, it does stress that no incentive the EU can offer can ever replace the much-needed political will to build a mature democracy.

So bang goes the offer of an updated Customs Union and visa-free entry into Schengen.

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey, has made clear that the European Council can no longer use procrastination and benevolence with Ankara. He calls for a thorough clarification of the EU’s Turkey policy on several fronts – military, foreign affairs, economy, refugees, rule of law, and concludes: “Leniency is not an option anymore.”

In turn, Turkey’s President Erdogan has played a game of cat and mouse with the EU.

In July a clash between Greece and Turkey over the small Greek island of Kastellorizo off Turkey’s south coast was averted because of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s intervention.

Ahead of the EU summit in October, Turkey withdrew its seismic research vessel, Oruç Reis, for “maintenance and supplies”, but as soon as the EU postponed sanctions, the Oruç Reis was back again with its naval escort.

Ahead of the December summit, Turkey issued a Navtex for the Oruç Reis to continue drilling activities off the west coast of Cyprus until November 29. Chancellor Merkel has fallen for it and considers the return of the vessel to port to be “a good signal”.

President Erdogan’s pitch is transparent. On a recent visit to Brussels, his spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin called for European leaders to see Turkey-EU ties through a “strategic mindset” and not allow Turkey-EU relations to be taken hostage by “bilateral disputes”.

The following day President Erdogan announced: “We see ourselves nowhere else but in Europe. We contemplate to build our future together with Europe.”

Furthermore, he claimed: “We believe that we do not have any problem with any country or institution that cannot be solved through politics, diplomacy and dialogue.” He also urged the EU not to be a tool of “explicit hostility” against Turkey.

These claims are belied by Turkey’s military expansion in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa’s Horn, and more specifically in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As far as “explicit hostility” is concerned, President Erdogan has never lost an opportunity to rail against Europe in his political discourse.

Of late, he has said France’s President Emmanuel Macron needed his head examined and in a reference to European leaders: “You are fascists in the true meaning of the world. You are veritably the link in the Nazi chain.”

This comes from the leader of a country where 63,000 people in the last five years have been prosecuted for insulting the president, and where the president has called on people to denounce their neighbours. Turkish justice minister Abdülhamit Gül recently announced that out of 167,719 tip-offs received by public prosecutors in 2020, 116,170 were false.

The only explanation for President Erdogan’s remarkable U-turn can be the failure of Erdoganomics and the fact that the EU is the only place he can turn to for a bailout. The outcome of December’s summit will determine how far the EU is prepared to support what its Parliament has termed “this repressive form of rule”.

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