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Analysis: European Council lacking strategic vision on Türkiye

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Associating Turkish-European relations with the Cyprus issue is unfortunately nothing more than a misguided attempt to neglect the extent of the problem, ignoring as well the existence and rights of Turkish Cypriots

After a long time, the European Council has again included Türkiye on its agenda. On the summit held in Brussels on April 17-18, there were many high expectations, either from experts, including the business circles and academics who had drawn up in-depth documents on the state of relations between Türkiye and the EU and by the public. Unfortunately, these were severely disregarded, proving once more the inability of the EU to create a constructive engagement with Ankara.

Although the EU emphasizes its strategic interest in developing the relations with Türkiye based on cooperation and mutual benefit, the conclusion of the European Council reads: “Particular attention is attached to the resumption of and progress in the Cyprus settlement talks in further enhancing EU-Türkiye cooperation,” and “Türkiye’s own constructive engagement will be instrumental in advancing the various areas of cooperation.” Moreover, it also specifies that the “European Council remains fully committed to a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem, within the UN framework, in accordance with the relevant UNSC (UN Security Council) resolutions and in line with the principles on which the Union is founded and the acquis.” [1]

Those statements have raised widespread criticism. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said: “The conclusions on Türkiye by the Special European Council held in Brussels on April 17-18, 2024, are yet another example of the EU’s lack of strategic vision on Türkiye and the global developments,” adding: “Türkiye will never accept an approach that links progress in Türkiye-EU relations to the Cyprus issue.” Hence, “It is necessary to abandon an understanding that reduces these multifaceted relations to the Cyprus issue. Such a mentality cannot make a positive and constructive contribution to the problem, nor to the other regional and global issues.” The ministry also said: “Türkiye, as a candidate member, is determined to get EU membership, but rejects selective limitation of cooperation to certain areas.” [2]

The business community is also of this opinion, as the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD) posted on X: “Strategic interests of the EU and Türkiye require the long-overdue modernization of the Customs Union without any political conditions or further delays.” [3] As a matter of fact, such a disappointment has not to be blamed, since it pivots on concrete assumptions.

Firstly, the European vision of the Cyprus issue is not neutral because historically it disregards the proportion of the problem, by simply siding with the Greek Cypriot administration which in 2004 not only rejected the Annan Plan but they also got full EU membership. Accepting a state that had an unresolved dispute within its territory was a blind strategic move, instrumental to creating the political conditions for impeding Türkiye-EU accession. Furthermore, in 2017 the Greek Cypriot administration was reluctant on the negotiations in Crans-Montana. Hence, efforts aimed at finding a sustainable solution have come to a standstill. Nevertheless, the mainstream responsibility has constantly fallen on Türkiye and on the Turkish Cypriots, perceived by Europe as the only ones who have to make concessions. Although this attitude may be understandable if seen from the opportunistic perspective of safeguarding an EU member state, it still goes beyond any legitimate acceptance. Over time, this approach has increased the awareness that the EU has contributed to spoiling any confidence toward a joint solution, by exacerbating nationalist stances and self-interested behaviors. Furthermore, while undermining Türkiye’s efforts and good intentions, the EU proved a lack of geo-strategic and peculiar inability to arise as a vocal foreign policy actor.

EU-Türkiye relations need to be addressed pragmatically

Certainly, the European shortcoming vision has had dramatic impacts on Türkiye’s accession to the EU, which is a long-standing process that culminated with the negotiations in 2005, born flawed. The veto placed by the Greek Cypriot administration – as a new member of the union – on a significant number of chapters, which immediately halted the Turkish path, showed the European double standards.

Another longstanding issue in Türkiye-EU relations made discretionally depending on the Cyprus solution, is the modernization of the Customs Union. Initiated in 1996, the Customs Union between Türkiye and Europe covers industrial and processed agricultural products, while for agricultural products and coal and steel products, a preferential agreement is applied. However, as there are also some problems in the implementation of the Customs Union, mainly stemming from its asymmetric structure, facilitating the integration of trade, as well in line with green and digital policies would be beneficial not only for Türkiye but also for Europe.

Another topic in need of being addressed pragmatically is visa liberalization for Turkish people. Currently, the existing visa regime contradicts the principle of reciprocity by creating many discomforts for Turks entitled to access the European territory. Entangling those issues, without political or strategic conditions, would be an asset for both sides as it would increase Turkish-EU integration. In addition, it would build mutual trust by restricting further margin of friction aimed at a constructive approach in dealing with a challenging regional environment.

A changing region and the role of Türkiye

Recently, the regional context has changed dramatically, showing great fluidity and a certain unpredictability. Although the Euro-Mediterranean basin has been challenged by wars, migration flows, energy disputes, political and social clashes, and strategic alignments, important efforts aimed at mediation and normalization have also been recorded.

As the conclusions of the 2021 European Council, which was the last one that dealt specifically with Türkiye, show there were many critical issues between the EU and Ankara. Indeed, the relations had reached the lowest point in terms of trust and mutual perception. Up to that point, Türkiye had been regularly on the agenda of the European Council, notably in the context of migration, counter-terrorism operations, and as a result of an increasingly intense situation in the Eastern Mediterranean; the Middle East, and in the South Caucasus. Despite the frictions, cooperation on a positive political agenda had been implemented, including modernization of the EU-Türkiye Customs Union, making this conditional upon progress on restoring good neighborhood relations.

However, many things have changed both at a regional and internal level since 2021.

For its part, Ankara has been proving a strong cooperative spirit towards its historic regional competitors, initiating significant normalization processes and showing its good diplomatic inclination on dialogue. Even in war-torn areas such as in the Black Sea region, Ankara has invested a lot in negotiation efforts arising as the only mediator.

More recently, even the Eastern Mediterranean, although it remains an intricate basin crossed by various cleavages, has witnessed a significant de-escalation. Despite the pending issue of the division of Cyprus persisted, Türkiye-Greece re-appeasement marked a new beginning in terms of confidence-building measures.

Nowadays, thus, while the Cyprus issue is back on the table in a partial perspective, new tensions may loom on the horizon. On one hand, it is evident that on the 20th anniversary of the Greek Cypriot administration’s EU accession, Brussels aims at advancing the already dominant position of the Greek Cypriot administration. On the other hand, associating Turkish-European relations with Cyprus is unfortunately nothing more than a misguided attempt to neglect the extent of the problem, ignoring the existence and rights of Turkish Cypriots. Nevertheless, such an approach proves the hypocrisy of the EU, whose lack of trust-building skills and strategic vision is dramatic.

Kaynak: AA

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