Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the European Union’s top officials held a high-level meeting behind doors in the capital Ankara on Tuesday, EU leaders agreed to increase trade and improve cooperation with Turkey on migration.
The visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel came after EU leaders agreed to offer Turkey new incentives.
Among the issues the two and Erdoğan were expected to discuss are Ankara’s demands for increased EU support for millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, an update of Turkey’s customs union with the EU and the liberalizing of visa rules for Turkish travelers.
Turkey is formally a candidate for EU membership, but its bid to join the 27-nation bloc has been at a standstill.
EU leaders said last month that the bloc was ready “to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner to enhance cooperation in a number of areas of common interest.”
Years of disagreements over a growing list of issues threatened to boil over last summer when Turkey sent navy ships to support an energy exploration mission in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey withdrew the vessels, somewhat cooling tensions, and this year participated in the first maritime talks with Greece since 2016.
Turkey and EU member Greece have been at odds on several issues. Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims made by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
In order to find a solution to the dispute that favors all parties, last year Turkey also proposed holding a conference with the participation of each Mediterranean nation, including the Turkish Cypriots, but the EU has yet to provide a concrete answer to the proposal.
Both the EU and Turkey have voiced their intentions to set a positive agenda, yet further efforts and actions are needed. Turkey recently reiterated that it is part of Europe and sees its future in the EU, adding that it will continue to work toward full membership. Turkish officials have also said that they hope for progress in 2021 and expect the bloc to take definitive action to this end.
During the latest summit of EU leaders on March 25 and 26, the bloc expressed that it is ready to boost cooperation with Turkey if the “current de-escalation is sustained.”
Turkey has underlined that it wants to push forward from the “positive” talks and has called for “concrete action” – particularly when it comes to migration.
Apart from further cooperation on migration and updating the March 18 statement, Ankara expects the modernization of the 1995 Customs Union and greater emphasis on Turkey‘s candidacy to become an EU member.
In September 2015, the image of Syrian toddler Ayla Kurdi‘s lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey sent shock waves across the world.
Six months later, Turkish and EU leaders inked a migration that stipulated that Ankara would receive political and financial benefits in return for tackling migration.
However, Brussels did not keep its promises to ease visa regulations and upgrade the Customs Union.
Shortly after the deal was struck in May 2016, arrivals of irregular migrants in the European Union dropped sharply – but still remain high. Almost 860,000 irregular migrants made their way from Turkey to Greece by sea in 2015, compared to 60,000 in 2019. The numbers dropped to a record low of 9,714 people in 2020 – although this is likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Five years on, the pact is failing as Turkey struggles with the increased number of migrants, while the EU is more divided than ever over its asylum policy.
Turkey is hosting 6 million migrants, with nearly 4 million from Syria, its migration authority says. That is 2 million more than in 2016, a heavy burden on a country that only had 60,000 asylum-seekers in 2011 before Syria‘s civil war broke out.
The pact nearly collapsed last year when thousands of migrants, mostly Afghans, Pakistanis and Iraqis, amassed at the Turkish border with Greece after Ankara opened its borders for those heading to Europe, with the bloc fearing more refugees from Syria‘s Idlib.
The border crisis was interrupted by the outbreak of the pandemic.