Strategic dialogue and cooperation between Turkey and the EU regarding Syria must not be abused in new Turkish elections
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    Strategic dialogue and cooperation between Turkey and the EU regarding Syria must not be abused in new Turkish elections

    The EU has been urged to ensure that its new strategic cooperation with Turkey should “not be abused as an election item” to boost the ruling AK Party.

    The call comes comes in the wake of a devastating twin bomb attack that killed nearly 100 in Ankara on  Saturday and as Turkey prepares  for a general election on 1 November.

    The snap election was called after the ruling AK party lost its majority in June polls and talks to form a coalition broke down.

    Leaders of the three main EU institutions, the Parliament, Commission and Council, met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels last week to discuss the details of an agreement precooked between Germany and the EU.

    Much of the dialogue between the two sides has focused on the current refugee crisis which has seen significant numbers of Syrian refugees flooding into Turkey and the EU via Turkey.

    While the EU says it expects Turkey to control its border and fully cooperate with Greece, Erdogan needs support for his Syrian strategy as well as financial and humanitarian support for the refugees in Turkey.

    The draft EU-Turkey action plan addresses these issues, apart from Erdogan’s Syria strategy – principally the creation of a safe zone in Northern Syria – which requires an agreement by the UN Security Council.

    On Wednesday, the Commission’s first Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Commissioner Johannes Hahn travelled to Turkey, on behalf of President Jean-Claude Juncker, to continue negotiations over the action plan proposed by Juncker to Erdogan on 5 October.

    Following the negotiations, the Commission will present the progress made at the European Council  in Brussels tomorrow.

    Meanwhile, Dr Demir Murat Seyrek, a senior policy advisor at the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy (EFD), says the new strategic dialogue and issue based cooperation between Turkey and the EU regarding Syria and refugees are “very positive developments.”

    He said, “This may create new dynamics and a spill-over effect for Turkey-EU relations. However, the EU should be very careful about it. Considering the upcoming historical elections in Turkey, this agreement could be used to boost the AKP (the party backed by Erdogan). The EU and its member states should be careful not to affect the election result. Cooperation in such a high-level and strategic matter should not be abused as an election item.”

    His comments are partly echoed by European Council President Donald Tusk who tweeted, “An agreement with and concessions to Turkey only make sense if it effectively reduces influx of migrants.”

    Dr Seyrek says that Turkey’s open door policy “deserves the praise and support” of the international community, including the EU, adding, “The Syrian crisis has been a wake-up call for the EU on the importance of maintaining a dialogue with Turkey”.

    “EU-Turkey relations have been locked in a vicious cycle of recrimination and blame over the stalled accession negotiations on the one hand, and democratic back peddling and the erosion civil rights and freedoms on the other.

    “Brussels has been preoccupied with the Eurozone, Russia, the rise of the far-right and growing Euroscepticism, and so Turkey hasn’t been high on the EU’s agenda. That all changed when significant numbers of Syrian refugees began knocking at the EU’s door.”

    He says that prior to the rise of Islamic State, Europe had discussed Syria in a “very ad-hoc manner” and with no broad strategy.

    “The millions of Syrian refugees fleeing their country only became a priority issue when they began to head towards EU territory, mainly via Turkey,” he said.

    Erdogan’s Brussels visit, he  believes, marks the beginning of “issues-based” cooperation between Turkey and the EU, something he hopes will continue after the elections which come at a time of rising instability in Turkey.

    The AKP interim government has faced increasing criticism over the deteriorating security situation in the country while renewed hostilities with the PKK, the recent involvement of Russia in Syria and the continuing threat of Islamic State activities in Syria and Iraq have all raised concerns.

    The ruling party backed by Erdogan lost its 13 year majority in June’s elections.The vote resulted in a hung parliament and Erdogan called snap elections after months of fruitless talks to form a coalition government.

    With Syria’s civil war increasingly spilling into Turkey, Ankara has fast become a central player in the migrant crisis now roiling Europe. Some of the 2.2 m Syrian refugees in Turkey are taking deadly smuggling routes to seek asylum in the  West.

    Talks on the migrant crisis will come under the spotlight when Merkel travels to Turkey on Sunday for talks with the country’s leaders.

    She will meet Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and, according to a German government spokesman, the visit will focus on the countries’ “common fight against terrorism,” the situation in Syria and dealing with migrant crisis.

    Germany and other European Union countries hope for help from Turkey to stem the influx of refugees and other migrants into EU member Greece.

    Dr Seyrek added, “We should not forget that EU-Turkey relations will continue after the elections which could lead to other positive results in Turkey-EU relations through a spill over effect.

    “However, the EU should ensure that the implementation of the action plan as well as the issue of visa-free travel doesn’t influence the election result.

    “While this is a well-deserved right for Turkish citizens, taking concrete steps on such an issue especially in the run-up to these historic elections would essentially provide a political boost for Erdogan and the AKP.”

    By Martin Banks