Wednesday

21st Apr 2021

EU leaders grasp Turkey's olive branch

  • European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel on Thursday (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU leaders have offered more refugee aid and customs perks to Turkey at a video-summit also attended by US president Joe Biden.

The European Commission was to come forward with "continuation of financing for Syrian refugees in Turkey" they said, after having already spent €6bn on the programme.

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And "the European Union is ready to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate, and reversible manner" they added on Thursday (25 March), mentioning modernisation of an EU-Turkey customs union.

They praised the fact Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had mended his ways.

"We welcome the recent de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean through the discontinuation of illegal drilling activities, the resumption of bilateral talks between Greece and Turkey, and the forthcoming talks on the Cyprus problem," they said, referring to an old frozen conflict between Turkey and Cyprus.

But the EU also threatened "to use the instruments and options at its disposal to defend its interests" if Erdoğan went back to poor form.

The EU sanctions options include blacklisting of Turkish officials and entities and economic strikes, such as a ban on tourist services in Turkey, according to an internal paper seen by EUobserver.

The paper also said Turkey should make a "concrete" gesture of taking back 1,450 refugees who crossed to Greece to start the ball rolling on the new agenda.

"We really hope it will be possible to improve the relationship with Turkey, but at the same time ... it is important that Turkey keep a positive behaviour, a moderate behaviour," EU Council president Charles Michel told press on Thursday.

Both he and Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised they would not throw human rights in Turkey under the bus for strategic reasons.

"Rule of law and democracy are absolutely key to any dialogue we have with Turkey," Michel said.

Von der Leyen "deplored" the fact Turkey recently walked out of an international treaty to stop violence against women, but she took the heat off Ankara by noting some EU states had still not joined it either.

"We call on all member states in the European Union to ratify the convention," she said, alluding to Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia.

The EU summit, which focused on vaccines, had a feel-good factor when US president Joe Biden briefly joined the video-talks.

It was the first time an American president had done so in 11 years and it marked a symbolic return to the good old days after the turbulent years of Biden's predecessor, the anti-EU Donald Trump.

"America is back. And we are happy you are back," Michel said in his opening remarks to a smiling Biden on the screen.

"What we are seeing is [that] values of democracy and the rule of law are under threat again," Michel later told press, after the EU and US recently imposed new human-rights sanctions on China and Russia.

"More than ever now, the United States and the European Union have a responsibility for the generations to come," Michel added.

A White House statement said Biden "expressed his desire to work together on shared foreign policy interests, including China and Russia".

But Thursday's smiles masked points of disagreement.

The US, on Wednesday, threatened to use sanctions against EU firms if they completed a Russian gas pipeline to Germany called Nord Stream 2.

It is also wary of an EU investment pact with China, its growing superpower rival.

Merkel's 'sovereignty'

For all that, German chancellor Angela Merkel said there were "a large number of commonalities that we want to cultivate", with the US, listing China, Russia, and Turkey policy.

But the EU ought to be free to forge independent China-trade relations, she added.

"It's not just about economic interests, but also about living up to what we also call European sovereignty ... we also have our own interests," she said.

"There's a greater premium than at any time since I've been involved in these issues, on finding ways to work together, again," US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who was in Brussels on Thursday, also said after meeting Belgian foreign minister Sophie Wilmès.

"A basic tenet of the Biden-Harris administration is consulting with our friends [in the EU], early and often," he added, referring to US vice president Kamala Harris.

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