This commentary is part of an ECFR discussion on a positive agenda for the EU and Turkey. The discussion includes a previous commentary by Ibrahim Kalin, and will include ones by Kati Piri and other experts.
Miguel Berger is State Secretary of the German Federal Foreign Office.
After a difficult year, 2021 started with relatively positive signals from Ankara for EU-Turkey relations. In particular, the resumption of exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece, along with the stabilisation of the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, made it possible for the European Council to offer Turkey a forward-looking agenda that protected the core interests of all sides. This agenda could pave the way for a more constructive relationship.
During its presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2020, Germany worked hard to arrive at this point. In summer 2020, a real crisis was looming. Together with its EU and NATO partners, Berlin invested considerable resources and time before the year’s end.
During these six months, we witnessed the slow but steady emergence of a dynamic in the eastern Mediterranean that facilitated constructive approaches. Week by week, it became clearer to all parties that concentrating on narrow, maximalist national positions would only deepen the divides between them. At the same time, the EU as a whole made clear that all its members could rely on the principle of European solidarity. The resumption of talks between Turkey and Greece, and de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean, reflect all sides’ interest in negotiated solutions. At the same time, renewed efforts were undertaken to re-engage in the Cyprus talks under the auspices of the United Nations.
The dialogue agenda the European Council offered to Ankara in March 2021 is a balanced one. The agenda outlines the lessons they learnt in 2020, as well as some basic elements of a constructive EU-Turkey relationship.
Firstly, for a dialogue agenda to materialise, Turkey should not resume its provocative unilateral actions in the eastern Mediterranean.
Secondly, the EU is prepared to negotiate on extending its support for refugees in Turkey. Let us recall and acknowledge that, by hosting up to 3.7 million people from Syria, Turkey has undertaken a huge humanitarian effort for several years now.
Thirdly, the EU and Turkey will explore their common interest in cooperating through high-level dialogues on priorities such as the fight against the covid-19 pandemic, as well as climate change – to name just a few crucial topics.
Fourthly, the EU is prepared to explore options for developing its trade and economic relations with Turkey, including through the modernisation of the Customs Union.
The EU will do all this while remaining ready to protect its interests and those of its member states in the case of renewed tensions.
However, relations between the EU and Turkey will only reach their full potential if Ankara renews its commitment to the common values on which they built their relationship. The rule of law and democratic principles, including freedom of the media and respect for the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), are necessary elements of any constructive and cooperative relationship with the EU. Turkey needs to address fundamental rule of law issues such as its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention – on preventing violence against women – and its persecution of the second-biggest Turkish opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party.
As chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe from November 2020 to May 2021, Germany – regrettably – regularly had to put the cases of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş on the agenda, demanding their immediate release in line with ECHR rulings. All members of the Council of Europe need to adhere to their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, including by respecting and implementing the decisions of the ECHR.
In the last few weeks, several instances of high-level contact between the EU and Turkey have helped them understand how to transform their dialogue agenda into a political reality.
This month, the European Council will take into consideration developments in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey before deciding on the implementation of the agenda. The Cyprus talks are one factor in this, but the Council needs to look at the whole range of issues in EU-Turkey relations.
Given that strong relations with each other are in their mutual strategic interest, the EU and Turkey should use this opportunity wisely.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.