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21st May 2022

EU in damage control on festering Turkey relations

  • Turkey's president Erdogan (2nd right) said "border gates will be opened" if the EU stops accession talks. (Photo: tccb.gov.tr)

The EU wants to hold on to ties with Turkey, amid threats by Ankara to scupper a migrant deal, in the wake of an EU parliament vote to freeze accession talks.

The European Commission on Friday (25 November) told reporters that diplomatic ties will be maintained with Ankara, despite MEPs pushing to temporarily suspend Turkey's fraught accession path towards EU membership.

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"We are sticking to the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees and we will do everything we can to make it succeed," said chief commission spokesman, Margaritas Schinas.

The March deal, with provisions to swap migrants, has reduced numbers of people crossing the Aegean to reach the Greek islands compared to last year.

But, the European Parliament earlier in the week voted overwhelmingly to freeze negotiations in response to a widespread Turkish government-led crackdown on alleged terrorists and state-saboteurs linked to the failed mid-July military coup.

The move is non-binding but sends a political message that the ever widening gap between Ankara and Brussels appears increasingly difficult to bridge.

The MEP vote has triggered a harsh rebuke from Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once again has threatened in response to renege on the March deal.

"If you go any further, these border gates will be opened. Neither me nor my people will be affected by these dry threats. It wouldn't matter if all of you approved the vote," he said at a women's congress in Istanbul.

Omer Celik, Turkey's Europe minister, also issued a seven-page missive that described the parliament's vote as "narrow-minded and irrational."

Celik said it made no sense to freeze talks given that EU membership negotiations have already stalled.

He also shot back over what he described as the upsurge of "extreme right policies" and xenophobia throughout the EU states.

Celik is travelling to Brussels next week where he will meet with commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, and security commissioner Julian King.

The EU council, representing member states, has the final say on whether or not to freeze talks.

The vast majority of EU states, Austria aside, want to keep relations and are likely to disregard the MEP vote given the broader fears over a 2015 repeat when some 1 million people arrived to claim asylum.

Timmermans, in minutes of a commissioners college earlier this month, said severing ties with Turkey "would be a grave political error."

He warned against any action that could provide the Turkish authorities "with a pretext in the current circumstances".

Cyprus, an island divided

Implications of an official freeze on talks may also factor into other key policy areas like the reunification talks in Cyprus.

Turk and Greek Cypriot negotiators are hoping to reach a deal before the end of the year to unify the island divided since 1974.

The Republic of Cyprus has been a member of the EU since 2004, but the outstanding issues over Turkey's hold in the northern area of the island have for decades, with some 40,000 Turkish troops on the island.

"It is, of course, obvious that a solution to the Cyprus partition problem will have beneficial spillover effects across the European Union and beyond," said Schinas.

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