After a particularly bumpy year in relations between Turkey and the bloc, EU Council leader Charles Michel and Commission president Ursula von der Leyen are in Ankara today for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A lot happened in 2020.
Turkey opened its border to allow migrants to access Greece in contravention of the ‘migrant deal’ made with the EU in 2016.
Turkish navy ships were dispatched on an energy exploration mission in waters claimed by EU members Greece and Cyprus, though the ships were later withdrawn after sanctions imposed by the EU.
And Erdogan fired a volley of personal attacks at the French president Emmanuel Macron and other EU leaders.
There were also the complications created by Turkey’s involvement in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Nagorno Karabakh and Erdogan’s attitude towards rule of law and human rights in his own country.
But both Turkey and the EU now have an interest in improving relations.
Migrants and leverage
The ‘migrant deal’ agreed in 2016 between Brussels and Ankara in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis remains important to both sides.
Under its terms, the bloc agreed to pay Ankara six billion Euros in return for Turkey stopping the flow of migrants into the EU.
But now both sides accuse each other of failing to adhere to the deal. Turkey says it has so far only received 3.7 billion euros, the EU maintains Turkey is not delivering on its commitment to take back migrants whose EU asylum applications are refused.
The deal, clinched at a time when the EU was desperate to stem the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015, continues to give Erdogan crucial leverage with which to pressure the EU, even on unrelated matters.
Speaking last month on France 5 TV, Macron was absolutely clear. “If you suddenly say to the Turks, we cannot work with you, discussions are over, they open the gates and you have 3 million Syrian refugees arriving in Europe.”
However, the EU can also exert pressure. Turkey’s struggling economy benefits hugely from the Brussels billions, and the EU’s decision in December 2020 to impose sanctions after Turkey’s naval excursion in the Eastern Mediterranean appears to have yielded results.
An unnamed EU diplomat speaking in Le Figaro newspaper on Tuesday judged that the EU’s recent “firm approach” to Turkey, pushed by France, appears to have tempered Erdogan’s attitude.
Erdogan also now has more need of Europe since the change of politics in The White House.
He will be missing his old friend Donald Trump, with whom he had a strong personal relationship while Joe Biden promises to be much tougher than his predecessor on issues such as respect for human rights and the rule of law.
All this might explain why on several occasions recently, Erdogan has said he would like to “turn the page” on relations with the EU.
Ankara would like its Customs Union with the EU to be extended, and more visas for Turkish citizens hoping to visit the EU.
Turkey would also welcome a resumption of talks on cooperation over security, environment and health.
Brussels wants Turkey to reopen talks with Greece over exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean and the EU would like a withdrawal of Turkey’s arms and mercenaries from Libya.
The EU, of course, welcomes the scheduled resumption in June of talks involving Turkey over Cyprus under the auspices of the UN.
Michel and Von der Leyen will address Turkey’s worsening human rights record and growing disrespect for the rule of law but with more immediate geopolitical disputes, the issue is not at centre stage.
EU foreign affairs boss Josep Borrell told journalists that relations with Turkey are embarking on a “new chapter.”
But he is under no illusions. If Ankara chooses to harden its stance, then the bloc would consider imposing sanctions again.
Measures have been drawn up that would impact Turkey’s vital tourism sector and with the country’s economy in difficulty and the Turkish Lira plummeting, the possibility of such sanctions should weigh in Ankara.