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29th Feb 2024

EU offers Turkey upgrade, as Sweden nears Nato entry

  • Sweden and Finland applied to join Nato last year (Photo: nato.int)
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The EU has offered Turkey almost all it wanted in return for ratifying Sweden's Nato entry, amid signs the saga is drawing to its climax.

The offer included launching new talks on modernising a 1995 EU-Turkey customs union and better visa-access to Europe for Turkish people.

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  • EU foreign-affairs chief Josep Borrell (l) in Brussels on Wednesday (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

It also included an upgrade in diplomatic relations more broadly speaking by reviving an EU-Turkey "association council" (yearly mini-summits with top EU officials) and regular ministerial-level talks on issues such as the economy, energy, trade, and transport.

EU leaders still have to bless the plan at their summit in Brussels on 13 December, said EU foreign-relations chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday (29 November).

Turkey would also have to refrain from gas-drilling in disputed East Mediterranean waters and from aggravating the Cypriot frozen conflict if things were to go smoothly, Borrell said.

But he hardly mentioned human rights, despite Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's despotic rule at home, with tens of thousands of political prisoners still languishing in his dungeons, including 58 journalists.

"This a positive report. We want to engage with Turkey," Borrell said.

The visa offer meant "issuing more multiple-entry [EU] visas with longer validity", especially for Turkish businessmen and students, EU neighbourhood commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said.

Turkey had wanted visa-free travel instead of visa-facilitation, but this was not "realistic", Várhelyi noted.

This is mainly because onerous EU benchmarks for visa-free travel would require far-reaching Turkish concessions, such as amending its anti-Kurdish terrorism laws.

Sweden's Nato bid

The EU published its proposal the same day Nato foreign ministers met in Brussels.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg had hoped that Turkey would ratify Sweden's Nato accession in time for the meeting.

The saga began when Finland and Sweden applied to join Nato last year due to Russian aggression in Europe.

Finland joined in April.

Turkey and Hungary are the only Nato members who still haven't ratified Sweden's entry, but the Erdoğan-friendly Hungary has said it would do so after Turkey goes first.

The Turkish leader made a deal with Sweden on 11 July at a Nato summit in Vilnius, in which he bound Sweden to crack down on Kurdish separatists and other dissidents that Erdoğan deemed to be terrorists.

He also bound Sweden to help him with the EU customs-union upgrade and visa-access.

When asked by EUobserver if Wednesday's EU offer was linked to Nato, the Swedish foreign ministry said: "It is a joint report from the European Commission and the EEAS [Borrell's European External Action Service]. We have noted that the report has been presented and will analyse it ahead of discussions in Brussels [the December EU summit]".

"It concerns a number of areas that deserve closer examination," Stockholm added.

When asked the same question, Borrell's spokesman dismissed the idea of a Nato link.

"No, these are two totally separate issues," he said.

"Today's report is the result of the decision of the European Council from June that we should have a thorough look at our [Turkey] relations and what could be done to shape them in line with our expectations and global realities," he added.

"So the context, scope, workflow and timeline of this decision by EU27 is completely different and separate from what Sweden and Turkey agreed [in Vilnius in July]," he said.

White smoke

But in any case, the new EU offer came amid other signs that Sweden's wait was coming to an end.

For his part, Turkish foreign minister Hakan Fidan told Swedish foreign minister Tobias Billström on the eve of the Nato meeting that Ankara would ratify Nato accession "within weeks".

"No new conditions were put forward in this conversation, there were no new demands from the Turkish government," Billström told press in Brussels on Wednesday.

"We expect white smoke [ratification] from Budapest the moment there is white smoke from Ankara, to put it very bluntly," he added.

But when asked by press if all that meant Nato should expect a "Christmas present [ratification]" from Turkey, Stoltenberg declined to raise expectations.

"We will continue to work on this and the sooner the better, because it will be good for Sweden. It will be good for Nato and good for all Nato allies to have Sweden as a full member," he said.

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