(by Alessia Chiriatti, researcher at the Institute of International Affairs expert in foreign policy)
Rule of law and respect for fundamental rights: Charles Michel, president of the European Council, thus opens his video message on Twitter to detail what they discussed together with Ursula with der Leyen, president of the European Commission during the diplomatic visit on Wednesday 6 April with the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A meeting that took shape as a test of negotiations between Brussels and Ankara and that comes after a difficult year in their relations, in particular due to the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and following the intensification of the crackdown on civil liberties and rights by the Turkish government .
On the table of the meeting, also other fundamental dossiers: the customs union and trade, the migrant issue, the de-escalation of tensions with Greece and Cyprus, the “high-level dialogues”, including the fight against climate change , the health and public health issue dictated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the mobility of people.
The appointment in Turkey was announced by Barend Leyts, spokesman for Charles Michel, last March 29, and temporally follows the virtual summit of March 25 and 26 between the 27 EU leaders, during which the latter discussed the issue. foreign policy agenda of the EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, underlining the need for a “gradual, proportional and reversible” negotiation with the Turkish ally. The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, had also participated in the NATO meeting last March 23-24 on the NATO 2030 strategy.
Customs union and trade
“We came to Turkey to give new impetus to our relations,” said von der Leyen, at the end of the meeting with the Turkish head of state, focusing on enhanced cooperation with Ankara. The first area at the center of the dialogue remains that of economic ties. Despite the profound financial crisis that the Turkish company has been going through since 2018 (and which at the moment suffers further due to the conjunction with the Covid-19 pandemic and with the Turkish lira which in just 6 months has lost 20% of its value ), Ankara remains an important partner for Brussels economically. In Borrell’s words, Turkish exports are equal to 69.8 billion of the European total and 58.5 billion of investments are directed by European countries in Turkey.
The EU and Turkey are also linked to each other by a customs union since 1 January 1996, which allows the free circulation of products (industrial goods and processed agricultural products) from third countries on condition that they are in free circulation (payment of customs duties and any taxes due on import). Over the last few years, however, there has been a tightening of the protection policies of the Turkish internal market, through the introduction of additional duties on various products (from textiles to mechanics) originating in non-EU countries. For the Union, after Brexit, updating the customs union measures with Turkey represents a major new challenge.
Migrants and human rights
The EU has long considered Turkey as a “gatekeeper” for refugees in the region. On the other hand, Ankara does not want to give up substantial EU contribution funds to alleviate the conditions of the four million Syrian refugees. For the EU, what was defined with Ankara in 2016 also remains valid for what concerns the fight against trafficking in human beings and smuggling: from the Brussels leaders, Ankara is expected to keep faith with its commitments, in particular with regard to prevention irregular departures.
On the human rights front, however, the recent decision by the AKP government to abandon the Istanbul Convention for the prevention of violence against women has aroused much criticism at the international level. A concern that Michel wanted to underline during the press conference at the end of the meeting.
The Mediterranean and the question of the Straits
Alongside the other points discussed, further aspects of the dialogue remain open: the complex situation in the eastern Mediterranean chessboard, with the strategic role of energy (it should be remembered that Turkey is the only G20 country that has not yet ratified the agreements of Paris on climate and that the country could be important in the external dimension of the European strategy on hydrogen), is not limited to the only, albeit intricate and conflicting issue linked to relations with Cyprus and Greece.
On March 27, in fact, Ankara, according to what was reported by the Minister of the Environment Murat Kurum, approved the development plans for the Kanal Istanbul, a huge canal north of the city, 45km long, for which investments of 75 billion lire, and which, in the words of the AKP, will facilitate maritime traffic on the Bosphorus Strait, preventing accidents similar to that on the Suez Canal. What is worrying is the respect of the Montreux Convention, which since 1936 regulates traffic across the Strait in times of peace and war, also fundamental for Russia, for which the Bosphorus is the gateway to the Mediterranean.
Ten of them, including former admirals of the Turkish Navy, have been arrested in recent days by the government for declaring their opposition to the new canal project.
(This post has already been published on the International Affairs website)