A crucial 10 days ahead in Turkey-EU ties

A crucial 10 days ahead in Turkey-EU ties

As was expected, Turkey announced that the Oruç Reis exploration vessel has concluded its seismic works in the eastern Mediterranean and had returned to Antalya’s port on Nov. 30. The vessel had been conducting seismic studies in disputed areas of the eastern Mediterranean since Oct. 12.

The vessel’s return to Antalya had been expected because the EU Council will meet on Dec. 10 and 11, and one of the key issues the 27 members will discuss will be how to respond to Turkey’s continued unilateral hydrocarbon activities in contested areas of the Mediterranean.

Let’s put it bluntly: Many EU countries, particularly France, Greece and Greek Cyprus, believe that the Turkish move is tactical in nature and just a repetition of what Ankara did on the eve of the Oct. 1 summit of the EU Council. As such, they are urging the bloc not to be duped once again by Turkey, calling instead for the imposition of appropriate sanctions.

Apart from the withdrawal of the Oruç Reis, Turkey has also been sending warm messages to the European Union as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reiterated that Turkey’s future is in the union. He also recently dispatched his foreign policy adviser, İbrahim Kalın, to Brussels to convey this message and underline that sanctions on Turkey would further poison bilateral ties.

Erdoğan has made this opening as part of his new “reform rhetoric,” promising that a new era has arrived in Turkey in which the country will address the problems stemming from judicial and democratic deficiencies. There appears, however, to be no audience in Europe that is ready to buy such statements. 

As was the case in October, all eyes are on Berlin, the EU term president. Chancellor Angela Merkel has admitted that there has been no improvement in engagement with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, although she did say the return of the Oruç Reis was a good sign.

Germany opposed sanctions on Turkey in October because they would have further complicated ties with Ankara in various theaters. But over the past two months, Germany has been left disappointed, especially by Turkey’s rejection of the proposals outlined by the European Union on Oct. 1.

There is still time for Brussels and Berlin to mull over what kind of strategy they wish to pursue at the summit. EU foreign ministers will meet on Dec. 7, and there is no doubt that diplomatic traffic will be accelerated in due course.

In the meantime, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, whose nightmare is renewed armed tension between Turkey and Greece, also welcomed the decision to withdraw the Oruç Reis, just a day before the start of the NATO foreign ministerial on Dec. 1-2.

It was no coincidence that Turkey made an open call to Greece to resume the exploratory talks on the same day the NATO foreign ministers were meeting. It would not be surprising to hear that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu might also repeat this call to his counterparts from other NATO countries.

But there is little prospect that Greece will agree to sit at the same table with Turkey before the EU summit. Greece wants sanctions to be imposed on Turkey and will not agree to give the impression that tension has de-escalated as a result of the withdrawal of the Oruç Reis.

It’s still problematic on Turkey’s side why it did not continue engagement with the European Union on the proposed positive agenda announced on Oct. 1 that included upgrading the customs union, accelerating the process for a visa waiver, renewing the 2016 migrant deal and holding an international conference on the east Mediterranean.

But it would also be problematic for Greece to delay talks with Turkey as the Oruç Reis is no longer sailing in disputed waters of the Mediterranean. Athens should be aware that imposing sanctions on Ankara would just further hurt stability in the region and be to nobody’s advantage.