EU chief visits Turkey in rare attempt to revamp relations

Ankara, Turkey: The European Union's top two officials will pay a rare visit to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, aiming to bring his ostensible dedication to improving strained relations to the test.

Years of squabbles over a growing list of issues threatened to erupt last summer when Turkey sent navy ships to assist an energy exploration mission in waters claimed by EU members Cyprus and Greece.

Tensions eased slightly after Turkey withdrew the ships and this year held the first maritime talks with Greece since 2016.

As a result, the EU backed down on its threat to sanction Turkey.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel will now see how Erdogan intends to follow through on his repeatedly stated desire to "turn a new page" in relations.

Setting of terms 

The Turks say they want to move on from "positive" talks that have resulted in a series of calls for "concrete action," especially on migration.

However, EU officials caution that any change is contingent on Erdogan's actions and whether he remains a positive partner. Erdogan was the leader when Turkey formally opened accession talks with the EU in 2005.

The potential thaw coincides with the White House's toughening stance toward Turkey, as President Joe Biden's election cost Erdogan a personal friend in Donald Trump.

In a "carrot-and-stick" strategy, the EU is dangling the prospect of reforming the sides' customs union, visa liberalization, more funds for refugees, and expanded dialogue with Turkey on a variety of fronts.

An EU official, however, insisted that Tuesday's meeting "will not be a moment of negotiations," but rather an opportunity for the parties to lay out their conditions for improved relations.

“We are ready, with the European Council, with member states, to put more concrete proposals on the table in order to have a more stable, more predictable relationship with Turkey,” EU Spokesperson Barend Leyte said last week.

List of grievances 

The meeting follows Turkey's withdrawal from a treaty fighting violence against women last month, as well as the start of a formal attempt to shut down the country's largest pro-Kurdish group.

Despite condemning both Turkey's decisions, EU leaders reiterated last month their commitment to working with Turkey if the "current de-escalation" is maintained.

Both parties have a laundry list of complaints they want to be resolved.

According to a Turkish diplomatic source, Ankara anticipates the modernization of the 1995 Customs Union and a greater focus on Turkey's candidacy status to join the EU.

According to the source, Turkey decided to amend their 2016 migration deal, in which the EU promised billions of euros in return for Turkey exercising control over the influx of migrants and refugees into Europe.

Turkey has almost four million refugees and migrants, the vast majority of which are Syrian.

"The EU hasn't yet fully lived up to its commitments to the deal, in particular its financial liabilities," the source said, adding only 3.7 billion euros ($4.4 billion) of the promised six billion euros had reached Turkey.

Brussels accuses Ankara of not following through on its commitment to take back migrants who make it to Europe but whose asylum applications fail.

Thorn of Cyprus 

According to Ilke Toygur, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Turkey desired a transactional partnership with the EU in order to "keep its options open."

With the decline of the West's influence, the Turkish government sees a "more multi-polar, more fragmented" world, Toygur said in a podcast for her think tank, adding, "Turkey sees this as an opportunity to also diversify its allies."

Turkey's more assertive foreign policy has been a major source of tensions between the EU and Turkey.

These erupted over Turkey's support for Azerbaijan during last year's war in Nagorno-Karabakh against Armenia, as well as Ankara's military support for Libya.

However, with ceasefires reached in those conflicts, the parties are now focused on UN-led exploratory talks over the divided island of Cyprus, which are set to take place later this month.

Cyprus has been a point of contention between the two countries since 1974, when Turkey invaded the island's northern third in response to a coup organized by the military junta in power in Athens, with the intention of annexing the island to Greece.

With AFP inputs. 

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