EU leaders seek to build on improving ties with Turkey

Brussels, March 25 (AFP/APP): European Union leaders will on Thursday consider diplomatic and economic incentives to encourage strategic southeastern neighbour Turkey to continue improving often fraught ties with the EU and promote stability.

Relations with Ankara are on the table at a video summit of the 27 EU nations as the bloc plots a way forward after an alarming spike in tensions last year over Turkey’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs the meeting, said the bloc want to step up “engagement with Turkey in a phased, conditional and reversible manner”.

The EU is trying to build on recent conciliatory moves from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has put sanctions over drilling in Cypriot waters on hold. Brussels has been encouraged by the resumption of talks with Greece over a disputed maritime border and by plans to restart UN peace efforts for divided EU member state Cyprus.

But there are deep concerns over Ankara’s recent moves to shut down an opposition party and its departure from a treaty on violence against women. The EU “needs to work on concrete proposals for a ‘positive agenda’ that fosters a constructive dynamic, including in terms of regional stability,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi told lawmakers.

But he insisted on “the importance of avoiding divisive initiatives and the need to respect human rights” and described Ankara’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention as a “serious step backwards”.

– ‘All options on table’ –

EU members are divided over the approach to Turkey, with Cyprus, Greece and France urging a tough line while others, led by economic powerhouse Germany, take a softer approach. An initial copy of the draft conclusions for the summit seen by AFP contained a raft of incentives to convince Erdogan to make good on warming ties.

These included the prospect of meeting key Turkish ambitions for top-level talks, renewing a customs union and liberalising visa rules. But there was also the threat of renewed sanctions from the EU if Turkey backtracks, “to defend its interests and those of its member states”.

A European diplomat said the draft was criticised as too soft by Cyprus and wrangling over the wording could see Ankara’s demands stripped out. That would likely go down badly with Erdogan who called for “concrete results” from the summit in a call with EU chiefs Michel and Ursula von der Leyen on Friday.

“The EU is ready to open three projects in June — customs union, high-level political dialogue on security issues and mobility,” the diplomat said. “But if there is any backsliding then he will defeat his interests.” A report by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell laid out the options to leaders, and said the bloc could look to target Turkey’s key tourism sector if Ankara escalates tensions.

“It is important to keep all options on the table in case required,” Borrell said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday. Turkey is pressing Brussels to update a deal struck five years ago to reduce the number of migrants crossing into the bloc mainly from the war in Syria.

That accord has seen Ankara stem the flow of migrants, mainly from the war in Syria, in return for billions of euros in aid from Brussels — but it has not stopped sniping from both sides. The EU is refusing to reopen the agreement but could offer Turkey more money for housing millions of refugees.

“We are ready to engage with Turkey on a positive agenda, to deepen relations if Turkey shows a lasting improvement in its intentions towards us,” an EU diplomat said. “There is no sign for the moment — so here we are, in a bit of a waiting position.”

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