Under pressure, Turkey struggles to repair ties with EU

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday he wanted to improve relations with the European Union and was hoping for the same “goodwill” from the 27-nation bloc.

Erdoğan’s more assertive foreign policy has rankled Brussels and led to escalations with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean and France in Libya and the Middle East.

But the Turkish leader – facing the threat of sanctions from Europe and a tougher line from US President-elect Joe Biden – struck a conciliatory note in a meeting with EU ambassadors in Ankara.

“We are ready to put our relations back on track,” Erdoğan told the ambassadors.

“We expect our European friends to show the same goodwill.”

Turkey and Greece this week agreed to address their long-standing dispute over maritime borders at so-called exploratory talks in Istanbul on Jan. 25.

The meeting will be the first since negotiations between the two uneasy NATO neighbours broke down after 60 fruitless rounds stretching 14 years in 2016.

“We believe that the exploratory talks with Greece … will be the harbinger of a new era,” Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan added that he was open to better relations with Paris after months of personal feuds with French President Emmanuel Macron.

“We want to save our relations with France from tensions,” Erdoğan said.

“Firmness bears fruit”

Erdoğan began to soften his rhetoric after EU leaders decided last month to expand the list of Turkish targets for sanctions because of Ankara’s “unilateral actions” in contested eastern Mediterranean waters.

The punitive steps could complicate Turkey’s growing economic problems and shake Erdoğan’s popularity after 18 years of rule as prime minister and president.

But Ankara and EU officials are about to launch a rare round of shuttle diplomacy that could set their relations on a more constructive course.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will visit Brussels on Jan. 21 while European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel are expected in Turkey by the end of the month.

The road to smoother ties is unlikely to be straightforward and will involve overcoming years of mutual mistrust.

French Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune said on Tuesday that targeted EU sanctions against Turkish individuals would still go ahead in the coming days and weeks.

“EU firmness is bearing fruit,” Beaune said in Brussels.

“We are hearing the signals and statements from Turkey,” said Beaune. “Let’s see if they bear any fruit. We have already experienced similar episodes.”

Clinging to membership goal

Erdoğan noted on Tuesday that Turkey’s drive to join the European Union – formally launched in 2005 but effectively suspended – could gain fresh impetus after Britain’s departure from the bloc.

“The uncertainty increased with Brexit could be overcome with Turkey taking its deserved place in the EU family,” Erdoğan said.

“We have never abandoned full membership (goal) despite double standards and injustice.”

Turkey’s accession talks have been side-lined by European concerns about Erdoğan’s human rights record — especially the sweeping crackdown he launched after surviving a failed coup in 2016.

But Turkey’s financial woes forced Erdoğan to pledge to work more closely with foreign investors and to put market-friendly reformers in charge of his economic team late last year.

Top Turkish officials have been repeating over the past few weeks that they want to “turn a new page” in relations with Western allies.

“It is in our hand to make the year 2021 a success in Turkey-EU relations,” Erdoğan said on Tuesday.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Arab Weekly and reproduced by permission.)