Wary EU eyes improved Turkey ties as FM visits

Christian SPILLMANN
·3-min read

The EU and Turkey pushed Thursday to mend ties strained by tensions in the east Mediterranean as Ankara's foreign minister held talks with a string of top officials in Brussels.

Mevlut Cavusoglu met EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and top diplomat Josep Borrell, after conciliatory gestures from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked hope of an uptick in relations.

"Dialogue is essential, but we also expect credible gestures on the ground," tweeted von der Leyen after a "brief exchange" with Cavusoglu.

Tensions between the EU and Turkey reached new levels last year after Ankara repeatedly sent a ship to search for gas deposits in disputed waters, angering the bloc and its member states Greece and Cyprus.

But both sides have softened their rhetoric in the weeks since Turkey withdrew the vessel, the Oruc Reis, in November and Brussels announced plans to expand sanctions last month.

In an important move, Turkey and Greece agreed to hold exploratory talks on their maritime dispute in Istanbul on January 25, resuming consultations suspended in 2016.

Erdogan insisted he wants to "turn a new page" in Ankara's relations with Brussels in a phone call this month with EU Commission President von der Leyen.

Cavusoglu said he was in Brussels to hammer out details for a visit by von der Leyen and council president Charles Michel to Turkey following an invitation from Erdogan.

"It is very important to create a positive atmosphere and agenda but in order for that agenda to be sustainable we need concrete steps by both sides," he said at the start of talks with foreign policy chief Borrell.

The EU has a raft of major issues with Turkey, including Ankara's role in the Syria, Libya and Nagorny Karabakh conflicts.

But it was spiralling tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, during which gunboats from NATO allies Turkey and Greece collided, that threatened to strain ties to breaking point.

Greece and Cyprus, backed up by France, pressed for broad punitive measures against Turkey.

EU leaders in December settled on expanding a sanctions blacklist of individuals involved in drilling in Cypriot waters, which currently contains two Turkish energy company bosses.

It remains unclear when new names will be formally be added, but an EU diplomat said there could be a provisional agreement on them at a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers next week.

- Two months to convince -

More ominous for Ankara is that EU leaders also tasked Borrell to come up with options for tougher punishment before their next summit in March in case Ankara resumes what Brussels called its "unilateral actions and provocations".

While France, Greece and Cyprus pushed hardest for a tough line on Turkey, others led by economic powerhouse Germany have been far keener for a more diplomatic approach.

Many are anxious to keep Ankara on side, as the EU still relies on it to prevent refugees from Syria heading into the bloc under a shaky 2016 deal.

Cavusoglu said that he and Borrell would discuss updating that agreement, as well as convening a multilateral conference on the eastern Mediterranean.

He also said he would focus on long-term concessions demanded by Ankara -- visa-free travel with the EU and modernising a customs union between the two.

Ankara's top diplomat is also set to meet Michel and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Friday.

European diplomats say that major economic woes at home and the departure of Erdogan's ally Donald Trump as US president are pushing the Turkish leader to take a more conciliatory approach.

Turkey launched talks to join the EU in 2005, but they became frozen as Erdogan began taking a more confrontational path.

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn insisted to AFP that the EU wanted a "lasting detente" with Ankara but that Brussels remained "determined to defend its interests and those of its member states".

"Nobody intends to wipe the slate clean," he said ahead of the visit.

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