The relations between EU and Turkey have been tense in recent years but have now reached an all-time low in all major issues such as the accession process, visa liberalisation, counter-terrorism, migration, trade and the situation in Syria.
At a political briefing in Brussels on Friday, arranged by the European Policy Centre, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister Faruk Kaymakci discussed whether the current credibility gap between EU and Turkey can be overcome despite the disagreements that run deep.
A former student at the College of Europe and ambassador to the EU, he understands how EU is working and is well placed to bridge the gap but he could not hide his disappointment with EU. According to Kaymakci, Turkey is treated differently than other candidate countries which has resulted in frustration and mistrust in Turkey.
Kaymakci listed three reasons as to why EU is so reluctant to accepting Turkey as a member: it’s too big, too poor and it is a Muslim country. But while understandable, these factors could be turned into assets and advantages for EU. He described Turkey as a Muslim but secular state with an outreach to the Muslim world.
A fourth dimension in the EU-Turkey relations is what he called the nationalisation of EU’s enlargement policy, with some Member States “abusing their membership”, blocking the opening of chapters and taking Turkey’s accession hostage to the solution of other problems such as the Cyprus issue.
“We have entered a vicious circle with Cyprus,” he admitted, “and are blocking each-other. The Cyprus issue must be solved but EU needs to take a more balanced position.”
Turkey’s accession process started on a good footing with the opening of enlargement negotiations in 2005 but in recent years there has been backsliding according to the European Commission’s reports. Then came the failed military coup on 15 July 2016 which took the lives of 250 civilians and security personnel and left thousands of people injured.
The coup plans were discovered in time and foiled but the traumatic event is still hunting Turkish society. EU condemned the coup as an attack against Turkey’s democratically elected institutions and has repeatedly expressed its solidarity with the Turkish people.
“We were probably the first ones to react in defence of the legitimate and democratically elected institutions, starting from the Parliament,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in September 2016. But apparently not quick enough. “Turkey expected support from EU on the evening of the coup but EU waited to the following morning to issue a statement,” Kaymakci said.
More recently, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted a resolution on 15 July 2019, on the anniversary of the coup. From the Turkish point of view, the choice of date was insensitive. The Council denounced Turkey’s drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean close to Cyprus as illegal, suspended any EU-Turkey high-level dialogues for the time being and reduced pre-accession aid to Turkey.
Kaymakci questioned why EU is supporting the plans of Cyprus, Greece and Israel to spend billions of euros on building offshore pipelines in the Mediterranean Sea to transport natural gas to southern Europe while there is a Turkish alternative. “EU has no competence and jurisdiction in our maritime waters. We don’t consider our drilling illegal.”
On counter-terrorism, he underlined that Turkey is in the forefront defending EU’s external borders and fighting three terror organisations – Daesh (Islamic State), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gulenist movement (FETÖ).
But Daesh has been defeated and the civil war in Turkey against PKK was resumed in 2015 after a promising peace process when the situation suddenly derailed. Kaymakci admitted that “Turkey was obliged to take actions against FETÖ although the measures were seen as away from EU values.”
Another major point of contention is the follow-up of the EU – Turkey agreement or statement on migration, signed on 18 March 2016. “The deal is working,” he said, but complained that Greece is not doing its part of the deal in sending back migrants to Turkey. “This sends a wrong signal.”
Asked by The Brussels Times to comment on this, a spokesperson for the European Commission replied that 23,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey have been resettled in EU, 2,500 refugees of other nationalities have been returned to Turkey and 11,500 migrants have been returned to third countries. As regards the return of Syrian refugees to Turkey, the number is limited and only ca 350 have been returned.
The spokesperson added that EU has been calling on the Greek authorities to improve the asylum procedures. The New York Times reported last week (12 September) that Greece has refused to improve migration facilities despite funding from the EU but according to the Commission most of the allocation to Greece to manage migration and borders – in total 2.07 billion euros since 2015 - has been contracted and spent.
“We are grateful for the assistance from EU but it’s far from enough. We have spent $40 billion while EU has committed only €6 billion in assistance. Not all the money has been transferred or spent on the ground because of EU’s cumbersome procedures,” Kaymakci said. “There are 3,7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and we cannot bear the burden alone.”
The Turkish deputy foreign minister also highlighted President Erdogan’s recent statements on establishing safe zones for refugees on Syrian territory along the border with Turkey. “The zones will be completely safe with new towns and villages to enable refugees a living.”
The Brussels Times asked Kaymakci if the safe zones were mainly intended for refugees from the Idlib area in northern Syria or if Turkey also planned to transfer Syrian refugees inside Turkey to the zones. He replied that they were intended for both categories of refugees. “We have liberated 4,000 km2 in northern Syria and 350,000 refugees in Turkey have already returned there.”
EU might not go along with the idea of forced transfer. The spokesperson of the European External Action Service said at a press briefing on Friday that EU is still studying the proposal. “The goal must be to avoid any new hostilities in northern Syria. Any sustainable solution requires a political transition in Syria in line with United Nations Security Council resolutions and the UN-led Geneva process.”
Despite his misgivings about EU, Faruk Kaymakci emphasized that mutual trust has to be restored since “the EU perspective is the main driving force for reforms in Turkey.” He even hoped that the new presidential system in Turkey would allow the reform process to accelerate but this might be wishful thinking since the system is considered as authoritarian by EU and an obstacle to accession.
The Brussels Times