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Turkey: A serious diplomatic crisis that can still be avoided

EU-Turkey relations have been enormously strained over recent years. Dialogue for Europe, in partnership with Ankara-based European Union and Global Research Organisation (ABKAD), is currently implementing a project called “Strengthening Dialogue between the EU and Turkey in the Area of Migration and Security”. The project is funded by the European Union under “Supporting Civil Society Dialogue Between EU and Turkey Grant Scheme” and is aimed at fostering greater understanding. 

At a conference in the Brussels Press Club, on EU-Turkey relations: ‘Integration of Refugees, Migration Deal and Future Relations’ a panel of experts discussed the current situation and the potential for improved relations and cooperation between Turkey and the EU. EU Reporter interviewed some of the panellists to get a picture of the current situation. 

Eli Hadzehieva, director of Dialogue for Europe and the co-ordinator of the project said: “We are focusing on migration and security, because we think that these are the most urgent areas to increase co-operation. This is likely to become a bigger challenge with the situation in Afghanistan.

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“Co-operation between the EU and Turkey is not limited to dialogue on migration or security, Turkey is still negotiating on 35 different chapters on a wide range of issues, but what we are aiming for is a co-ordinated approach between migration policies, foreign policies, defence policies, aligning legislation in Turkey and the EU, in this way we will be more able to tackle crisis situations such as the one in Syria and Afghanistan.

“We may be facing another refugee crisis, maybe not as big as the 2015 migration crisis, but still an important one. Notwithstanding political differences and disagreements, the EU and Turkey will need to co-operate as neighbours.”

Hadzhieva says that civil society co-operation is a great way to take a non-partisan approach and explain the frustrations felt on both sides in this debate. She said that it shouldn’t be about “just becoming frenemies”, but to focus on common interests, common concerns and starting to find durable solutions. 

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Bulgarian MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk (pictured), who is from the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, welcomed the initiative, particularly the involvement of civil society in raising awareness on joint challenges. He said that Turkey should be seen as a strong ally in security and defence for the EU. Kyuchyuk was originally planned to host the event in the European Parliament, but because of health and safety measures due to Covid this was not possible. 

Samuel Vesterbye, managing director of the European Neighbourhood Council, outlined the current situation of Afghan refugees in Turkey: “The situation is one of ambiguity in the sense that, on one side the EU has provided an enormous amount of financing, namely the €6 billion, which have been allocated as part of the 2016 migration deal and under the new the new budget of the multi annual financial framework.” However, Vesterbye went on to say that these communities are the most vulnerable within Turkey, so the challenges are considerable.

Vesterbye makes it clear that the financial contribution is critical, but that the EU and Turkey could do much more to co-operate to address root causes of migration, including in the areas of development aid and other types of foreign and security co-operation. 

Koert Debeuf, editor-in-chief of EUObserver, points out that Europe was unable to secure Kabul airport, it was the intervention of the Turkish army who stepped in where European armies didn’t have the capability. This is one concrete example of common security interests, Debeuf argues that Turkey is an essential partner in the entire region. More broadly, Debeuf points to other strategic partners that Turkey could align with, asking bluntly: “Do we want Turkey to be with us, or against us?”

One of the difficulties in current relations is the unpredictable nature of President Erdogan for EU leaders, says Debeuf, while adding that Turkey is not the only partner that has been unpredictable. The European Union has stalled accession and the accession of Cyprus to the EU before the divisions on the island had been properly resolved, has effectively given one party in that unresolved conflict a veto. 

The former Turkish ambassador to the EU Selim Kuneralp said: “I think that the two sides have enormous interests in common. We have a very long standing relationship. You know, Turkey has been an associate of the European Union for what is almost 50 years now, and has been a candidate for accession since 1999. Turkey is the only non-member state of the European Union to have a customs union with the European Union. And so the degree of integration is quite considerable.”

Kuneralp also underlined how the Cyprus situation had made the EU-Turkey relationship more difficult: “The Cyprus problem, particularly since the accession of Cyprus to the European Union, constitutes the main source of blockage in the negotiations on accession, and the negotiations on deepening the customs union and everything else. We face a situation where the only area where the two sides are working together is on migration, this is a very important common challenge, but that in itself shows that the two sides really need each other.” 

Asked how relations could improve between the EU and Turkey, Kuneralp said that the most important thing that the European Union can do is to change the rhetoric. He says there needs to be a change in the mindset in Europe, if that changes there can be a change and a clearer perspective on integration can be worked towards. 

Professor Hatice Yazgan of ABKAD outlined how the migration issue had evolved in Turkey and the value of greater dialogue. Yazgan pointed to participation in Erasmus+ as a good way to strengthen relations between the EU and Turkey.

“This article was published as part of an EU-funded programme”

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