Conditional cooperation: The EU’s ‘positive agenda’ and Turkey’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean

“If Turkey does not move forward constructively, if it returns to unilateral actions or provocations, in particular in the Eastern Mediterranean, of course, we would suspend the cooperation”, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. epaselect epa07909583 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses provincial chairmans of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, Turkey 10 October 2019. After the near-escalation and drama of last year, the present tranquillity may be termed a success story of European, and foremost German diplomatic interventions. “The EU now sees us almost like Russia”, says retired Turkish Ambassador Oguz Demiralp: “Let Turkey do what it wants to do unless it hurts me.” This option would come into effect should Ankara move away from the EU’s overreaching expectations concerning peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. The European Union has fully taken sides with them in their conflicts with Turkey. But for Brussels, these aren’t the decisive points. EPA-EFE//STR

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Once again, relations with Turkey took center stage at the European Union’s summit meeting. Brussels is willing to channel new funds to Turkey in an effort to ward off a new migration flow from Anatolia to Europe. The EU is acting on the maxim of Realpolitik only. Both sides agree to the need to talk in these three areas. Ankara’s conduct in the Eastern Mediterranean is the key determinant of EU-policies vis-à-vis Erdogan. EPA-EFE/STR

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed members of the ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara. The future will show whether, or for how long, Erdogan is prepared to sacrifice his well-communicated maritime aspirations in a trade-off for better relations with the European Union. The Europeans have created a political connection by linking progress in their relations with Turkey to Turkish behavior – or good behavior, to be more concrete – in the maritime issues of the Eastern Mediterranean. The times when the EU discussed scenarios leading to Turkey’s membership are history. Speculation is rife that a Mitsotakis-Erdogan summit could be the next step on the bumpy path towards trans-Aegean rapprochement. By so doing, Brussels has become a party in the dispute. “It means that we hope Turkey will maintain a moderate behavior, positive behavior”. Of course, he is aware of the human rights violations, the draconian clampdown against the opposition, and to top the series of illiberal provocations, Ankara’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing Violence against Women. In this enumeration, the term “reversible” is decisive. When the President of the European Council says “positive behavior”, he is not referring to Erdogan’s domestic politics. Mentions of human rights and democracy have degenerated to lip service. Turkey has deployed troops in the north of the island ever since the forceful partition dating back to 1974. style=”font-size:40px; line-height: 1.3em; font-weight: 800; padding:7px;”>Conditional cooperation: The EU’s ‘positive agenda’ and Turkey’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean

By Ronald Meinardus
Political commentator and analyst, he heads the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s office in Istanbul. EPA-EFE//STEFANOS RAPANIS
Meanwhile, sticking to the carrot and stick approach the summit has resolved to kick-start talks with Ankara on three main topics: the modernization of the Customs Union, the expansion of high-level political talks and migration. In today’s dealings with Turkey, normative values have no place.  
A Greek Air Force F-16 fighter during an air-refueling while taking part in training exercises off the island of Crete. Cyprus also has stakes in the regional dispute. In line with this, the official Council agenda did not mention “Turkey”, instead referring to the “Eastern Mediterranean”, 
For the European Union, the conflicts in and around the Eastern Mediterranean have become a political top-priority. The offer to Turkey is “a positive agenda, but conditional” says Charles Michel. The government in Ankara has not overheard the admonitions and reacted with what observers have termed a “charm offensive”. In dealing with Turkey, the EU has decided to keep a backdoor open, an option to move away from the talks or to terminate them. Importantly, also the talks on migration are ruled by a general caveat. The summit conclusions state that all engagement with Ankara would happen “in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner”. A meeting of foreign ministers is scheduled for mid-April. Compared with last year, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has calmed down. This conditionality runs like a common thread through official EU statements. While Ankara’s gradual sliding to an authoritarian order used to be the focus, foreign and security issues related to Turkey have become the main issue. A moratorium of sorts governs Greek-Turkish relations. Or put differently: Should Erdogan resume the explorations in disputed waters, Brussels would pull the plug. has become a regular agenda item when EU leaders convene. From an EU- perspective, no less than the integrity of the external borders of the Union is at stake in the conflict with Ankara. How to deal with Erdogan’s Turkey? Of a more recent date are differences over maritime claims between Ankara and Nicosia. By a hair’s breath, Athens and Ankara came close to engaging in a military confrontation last year. Erdogan’s decision not to dispatch Turkish research vessels into disputed waters is the main reason for the détente. Also: If it weren’t for the Turkish-Greek strife, cooperation on the refugee issue would top the list of EU-Turkey diplomacy. Turkey has launched an offensive targeting Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria, days after the US withdrew troops from the area. ”We are ready to put more concrete proposals on the table to have a more stable, more predictable relationship with Turkey”, said Charles Michel after the meeting. Cyprus and Greece are both EU member states. Irrespective of the European criticism thrown at Erdogan’s Turkey, EU leaders hardly miss an opportunity to applaud Ankara’s hospitality towards the nearly four million Syrian refugees who have settled in the country. It is here that Europe’s offer of a “positive agenda” is most obvious. Following years of standstill, Athens and Ankara have resumed their bilateral talks. Both sides also agree that these talks are in their mutual interest. If there is any one area in EU-Turkey relations that deserves the win-win-tag, it is the modernization of the Customs Union. An important takeaway from the summit has been that for the EU, what Erdogan does within Turkey’s own borders is of secondary importance only.     
Today, the quality of Turkey’s EU relations depends on the state of affairs of Turkish-Greek relations.