Bringing the EU and Turkey back together

Civil society groups have called for a new impetus for EU-Turkey cooperation in the area of migration and security.
Source: Alamy

By Eli Hadzhieva

Eli Hadzhieva is Director of the Dialogue for Europe

06 Jul 2021

Since the 2015 migration crisis, cooperation in the field of migration became an important pillar in the EU-Turkey relations. At the same time, a number of high-profile conflicts in their neighbourhood has stirred tensions between them.

The 2016 migration deal was successful in curbing irregular migration and preventing humanitarian tragedies on the shores of the Mediterranean. But it remains to be seen whether it resulted in an equitable burden sharing among host countries in the EU and its neighbourhood or better living conditions for some 3.7 million Syrian refugees with temporary protection status in Turkey, who have little aspiration to return to their homes.

However, the deal was criticised by both sides. While Turkey was dissatisfied by the EU’s unfulfilled promises on visa liberalisation, Customs Union update and accelerated accession negotiations, there were concerns in the EU about Turkey’s full compliance with its Copenhagen commitments. Turkey's accession negotiations had been frozen for the last few years, but the European Parliament recently called for their formal suspension while insisting that any positive agenda with Turkey should be made conditional upon democratic reform.

Although additional funding was promised by the EU to Turkey in April as a sign of “solidarity” and “an investment in shared stability”, and an extension of the deal looks imminent, long-term solutions may be needed to tackle common challenges such as migration and security.

“The future relationship between the EU and Turkey must be based on strong dialogue and mutual trust if it is to bear fruit and be of a lasting nature.”

The EU should carefully consider the effectiveness of its current “carrot and stick” strategy, which juggles both sanctions and a positive agenda. It seems that the current geopolitical debate is more conducive to the latter as tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are easing with the ongoing exploratory talks and signs of rapprochement between Turkey and several allies on the sidelines of the recent NATO summit. But the EU and Turkey would need to align their foreign and defence policies in the long term, especially in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, to tackle the root causes of migration flows and to avoid future humanitarian disasters.

Although there is a certain accession fatigue, mostly stemming from unfulfilled promises on both sides, Turkey has repeatedly underlined that “it sees itself in Europe and seeks to build its future in the continent”, while highlighting its readiness for reforms. It’s high time for Turkey to walk the walk for these reforms to materialise and for the EU’s high-flying watchwords, such as “positive agenda” or “revamp of the Customs Union deal”, to be translated into concrete actions.

The future relationship between the EU and Turkey must be based on strong dialogue and mutual trust if it is to bear fruit and be of a lasting nature. Civil society has a crucial role to play here in boosting cooperation instead of hostilities in the Euro-Mediterranean region. Against this background, a new project called “Dialogue for Migration and Security”, led by the Brussels-based civil society organisation Dialogue for Europe (DfE) in cooperation with the Ankara-based European Union and Global Research Organisation (ABKAD), has kick-started in April 2021. The project, funded by the EU, aims at strengthening the civil society dialogue between the EU and Turkey in the area of migration and security by creating synergies and avenues of cooperation among NGOs, academics, and policymakers in view of giving a new impetus to mutual relations. As a result, civil society organisations from both sides will be able to shape policies while embracing the EU’s core values and countering the rising populist and xenophobic discourse in the EU and Turkey.

“Having the longest history and negotiation process with the EU, Turkey is the EU’s sixth largest trading partner. It is also an important player in the EU’s energy security and a staunch NATO ally.”

Having the longest history and negotiation process with the EU, Turkey is the EU’s sixth largest trading partner. It is also an important player in the EU’s energy security and a staunch NATO ally, assuming a crucial role as the defender of the South-eastern front of the Alliance during the Cold War. These longstanding and strategic ties should be reflected in diplomatic and geopolitical relations between the EU and Turkey. Both Turkey and the EU shall seek inclusive and constructive approaches and avoid unilateral steps when dealing with sensitive issues, such as migration and security. The consequences of isolating a long-term partner should be carefully considered by the EU. At the same time, Turkey should continue to play a bridging role between the East and the West, while contributing to the EU’s diversity and respecting its values, such as democracy and human rights.

Eventually, Turkey should be given the opportunity to open and close benchmarks of the negotiation chapters, such as Chapter 10 on Information Society and Media and Chapter 24 on Justice, Freedom and Security. This could help advance much-needed fundamental rights, media freedom, rule of law and judicial reforms in Turkey. The suspension of the talks, however, would be the least constructive step that the EU could take right now, while taking the risk of alienating Turkey.

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