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In Europe’s corridors of power, people are well aware that if the necessary reforms are not implemented, 2024 will open another cycle of blame and threats that will poison EU-Turkey relations once again, write Christos Kourtelis and Caglar Ozturk.
A few months before Turkey’s May elections, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan showed some signs of changing his aggressive tone towards the EU.
He stated that Turkey intends to become a full member of the European Union and called on the Union to speed up the process.
However, such statements are not new for the President of Turkey, whose words and actions do not coincide. For relations to develop, a tangible change in Turkish foreign and domestic policy is absolutely necessary.
Such changes are very urgent, as Turkey’s accession process has been frozen since June 2018.
The positive agenda, launched in October 2020, did not produce serious results, as Turkey was threatening other EU member states with its drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Threats of sanctions from Brussels helped halt Turkish drilling activities, but discussions have since focused only on urgent challenges, such as managing migration flows, modernizing the Customs Union (CU) and visa liberalization for Turkish citizens.
Is Turkey’s piecemeal approach hindering progress?
A few months ago, in June, to relaunch the positive agenda, the European Council asked the High Representative and the European Commission to prepare a report on the current state of EU-Turkey relations and on potential tools and options to proceed strategically and in “forward-looking way”.
The report took into consideration the pillars of the positive agenda, but Turkey’s piecemeal approach so far hinders the improvement of bilateral relations.
More specifically, the fact that Turkey has failed to meet all the criteria of the roadmap prepared together with the EU-Turkey statement of March 2016 does not help EU politicians to suggest visa liberalisation.
In recent years, in fact, there has been an increasing refusal of visa requests by Turkish citizens.
The EU institutions appear to have recognized the slow pace of the reform process in the candidate country, as the Joint Communication advises Member States to facilitate access only for specific groups, such as students, entrepreneurs and Turkish citizens with family members in the EU.
Trade rules issues remain unresolved
Modernization of the UC is another important topic in bilateral relations. Following the European Commission’s request to the World Bank regarding the impact of the modernization of the Customs Union and the 2016 agreement on migration flows, the two sides agreed to resume discussions on the UC.
The discussions were quickly halted due to Turkish provocations in the eastern Mediterranean and barriers placed by the Turkish government on bilateral trade.
The current government has promised to address the problems in its trade rules, but the most recent joint communication linked the UC modernization to the resumption of talks on a solution in Cyprus under the auspices of the United Nations.
Given that Turkey supports a two-state solution, it is very interesting to see whether the current government will be able to make a U-turn and how it will communicate a change in its foreign policy (according to UN mandates) to its domestic audience. .
Migration is fundamental to Ankara’s credibility
Another important problem is linked to Turkey’s disinterest in welcoming irregular migrants from European countries.
The weak excuse of the potential spread of COVID-19 has rendered the EU-Turkey migration agreement dysfunctional and, as a result, the Aegean and Balkan routes are now complemented by increasing numbers of migrants transiting to Cyprus.
Turkey should respect its commitment to the agreement to increase its credibility as an international negotiator.
At the same time, and as long as Turkey does not act aggressively towards other EU member states, Brussels must also pay more attention to issues crucial to the candidate country, such as economic growth, energy and transport.
The invitation to Turkish ministers to the informal meetings of EU Foreign Ministers (Gymnich meetings) is a good start for exchanging views on common problems in a more structured way.
These discussions will shed light on whether or not the Turkish side is willing to realign with the CFSP.
Lack of trust and low expectations
2024 is set to prove whether or not Turkey’s positive rhetoric is significant or whether it is another move by the Ankara administration to gain temporary gains.
Erdoğan’s recent visit to Athens indicated that there is a wind of change, but not many people in Brussels trust the Turkish leader.
The recent Joint Communication clearly shows that EU politicians do not have high expectations, as Turkey faces a long reform process.
In Europe’s corridors of power, people are well aware that if the necessary reforms are not implemented, the new year will open another cycle of blame and threats that will once again poison EU-Turkey relations.
Christos Kourtelis is an assistant professor in European Public Policy at Panteion University, and Caglar Ozturk is an independent researcher on EU-Turkey relations.
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