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20th Sep 2021

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Possible tourism sanctions in EU report on Turkey

  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: EU report contains possible new sanctions, but also extra money for refugees (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Europe should be ready to kick Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan where it hurts (in his economy) if he goes back to gas piracy in the Mediterranean, EU institutions have said.

But it should offer him more money to keep refugees from coming no matter what and better customs perks if he remains "calm" and "constructive".

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That was the gist of a 16-page strategy paper circulated by the EU foreign service on Saturday (20 March) and seen by EUobserver.

The toughest sanctions options included: "measures targeting ... sectors important for the Turkish economy, such as a prohibition to supply of tourism services, negative travel advice by member states", it said.

It also spoke of "measures in the energy and related sectors, such as import/export bans on certain goods and technologies".

But any sanctions should be progressively dialled up in a "reversible" way "in order to adapt to the situation".

A first step would be "additional listings" of Turkish businessmen or officials involved in the gas operations.

And next steps would be "to include legal entities" or "further restrictions on EU-Turkey economic cooperation", such as European Investment Bank lending.

But no matter how Erdoğan behaved, the European Commission, which co-wrote the report, was to "rapidly prepare options for continued funding for refugees and host communities in Turkey", on top of the €6 billion paid out in recent years.

"We have a genuine self-interest to build on the success stories of the last years," the report said, noting that just 25 people a day on average crossed the Aegean to Greece last year, compared to thousands before an EU-Turkey migrant deal.

Meanwhile, if things went well, the EU should restart talks on "modernisation and expansion of the scope of the current EU-Turkey Customs Union", the report added.

It should also help Turkey to meet conditions for visa-free travel and resume frequent "high-level talks", which had dwindled to just a handful of meetings a year.

But Europe ought to give carrots only in return for "concrete steps", the EU officials warned.

And one such step would be "that Turkey would without any further delay restart the process of returns from the Greek islands, starting with the 1,450 returnees whose legal appeals are exhausted".

The EU report was the first of its kind and came in a moment of "calm" after a year of acute tension.

Turkey is normally discussed in the EU's yearly 'enlargement' assessments, but these have lost relevance due to collapse in faith that Turkey might ever join the European Union.

Tensions "peaked" last February when Erdoğan "actively encouraged migrants and refugees to force their way into the EU", creating "violence at Greek land and maritime borders", Saturday's report noted.

They peaked again in August and October when the Turkish navy and a gas-drilling ship sailed to the Greek island of Kastellorizo "escalating tensions close to a possible clash between the two Nato allies".

The "situation began to change towards year-end", the EU report said, when Erdoğan stopped violating Greek and Cypriot waters and showed a "calmer, more constructive attitude on various issues".

But the detente was "fragile" and the EU needed "more time to judge whether it is ... credible".

Erdoğan's faces

Turkey's frozen conflict with Cyprus was the "core element of Turkey's strong disagreements with the EU", the report said.

But Erdoğan's "growing centralisation of power" also meant Turkey was further than ever from "core EU principles and values", it added.

"The further deteriorating domestic situation in Turkey, notably in the area of fundamental rights and economic governance, has had clear negative effects," on EU relations, the report said.

And Erdoğan's foreign policy was equally out of line with the EU, it warned.

Erdoğan disregarded 89 percent of EU foreign policy positions last year, in areas including Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Libya, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the EU officials calculated.

His military intervention in Libya was "detrimental to the EU's effective contribution to the UN arms embargo implementation" there, they noted.

And Turkish warfare against Kurds in northern Syria and northern Iraq had caused "large-scale displacements" amid "reports of human rights abuses against the civilian population".

The EU strategy paper will be discussed by foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

EU leaders will also use it as a basis for talks on Turkey relations at a video-summit on Thursday.

For his part, Erdoğan showed his friendly face in a video-conference with the EU Commission and Council presidents on Friday, when they discussed more EU money for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

But he showed an uglier face on Saturday, when Turkey pulled out of an international treaty to curb violence against women.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and US president Joe Biden urged him to reverse his "dangerous message".

But Erdoğan, the same day, surprised the West again by sacking his central bank chief over an interest-rate hike, which was meant to stabilise inflation.

Elephants in room

The EU report was less geopolitical than some diplomats might have expected.

It said nothing on Erdoğan's arms and conflict deals with Russian president Vladimir Putin, his clashes with the US, or his strategic value for Nato in the Middle East, for instance.

It was "brave" of EU officials to threaten a strike on Turkey's tourist sector, one EU source said.

European tourists, especially from Germany and Bulgaria, pay the bulk of the €29 billion in foreign currency that tourists bring to Turkey in a normal year.

And the EU report underlined the importance of foreign money amid Turkey's huge debt pile.

"Some 41 percent of all Turkish export in goods go to the EU ... [and] the EU is also by far the biggest source of foreign direct investment in Turkey, with a stock of €58.5 billion in 2018," the report said.

But EU states would never trigger economic sanctions on Turkey, making the report a hollow threat, the EU source said.

And Borrell might have underestimated the sweetness of Putin's counter-offer, the source added.

"Putin is giving Erdoğan regional deals in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh, and helping him keep the Kurds under his boot. He's also giving him an energy hub, a nuclear power plant, S-400s, and international recognition," the source said.

The "energy hub" referred to a Russia-Turkey gas pipeline to the EU, called TurkStream, which started up in January.

The 'S-400s' are a Russian air-defence system that can shoot down Nato planes.

"It's adds up to quite a lot," the EU source said.

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