Brussels to revive ties with Turkey despite 'differences' and stalled EU membership talks

Increased cooperation with Turkey on trade, energy, transport and migration management were among the recommendations unveiled on Wednesday by the European Commission.

The two sides may not be seeing "eye to eye" on many issues, Olivér Várhelyi, the bloc's Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, told reporters but "there's more that unites us than what divides us."

"It's clear that there have been difficulties in the past, such as the dynamics in the eastern Mediterranean, bilateral relations with some of our member states and trade irritants," the bloc's top diplomat Josep Borrell meanwhile said.

"But we have seen a more constructive attitude on these points," he added, "although there are still open issues which we need to address together, and certainly this includes, in a relevant position, the Cyprus issue."

Among the new commitments are new green and digital investments, fresh efforts to facilitate visa applications, reinstated high-level dialogues on economy, energy, transport, climate and health, as well as a new high-level dialogue on trade aimed at tackling so-called "trade irritants."

The bloc will also resume negotiations on a modernised EU-Turkey customs union, provided Ankara supports efforts to crack down on the evasion of European sanctions against Russia.

Collaboration on migration management, a key aspect of EU-Turkey relations since the so-called 2016 EU Turkey statement, will also be stepped up to prevent irregular departures, strengthen border control and crack down on human smuggling.

Engagement would be "progressive, proportionate and reversible," Borrell said, in a nod to the bloc's cautionary approach.

Relations between Brussels and Ankara have been plagued by difficulties since official talks on Turkey's accession to the bloc opened in October 2005.

The main stumbling block has been the failure to mediate a settlement of the Cyprus issue and Turkey's continued refusal to recognise the Republic of Cyprus. The dispute has stemmed any efforts at deepening cooperation on defence, despite Turkey being a member of the NATO alliance.

Greco-Turkish maritime disputes and Ankara's past drilling activities in contested waters have also added fuel to fire. Devastating earthquakes in southern and central Turkey in February saw relations improve rapidly, with a steep decrease in violations of Greek airspace.

The bloc has also fiercely criticised democratic backsliding in Turkey, particularly since late 2016 when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the first drastic measures to strengthen his grip on power after an attempted coup against his government.

Despite Erdoğan appointing what is considered a western-friendly cabinet following his election victory last May, relations between Brussels and Ankara remain fraught.

In a damning report on Turkey’s progress towards EU accession published earlier this month, the European Commission denounced “serious deficiencies” in Turkey's democratic institutions, as well as persistent “democratic backsliding”. It also decries the lack of progress in reforming the judiciary and upholding the freedom of expression.

Lack of alignment on foreign policy

The report also highlighted deep rifts in both sides' foreign policies, with an alignment rate of just 10% in 2023, compared to 8% in 2022, according to the EU executive.

These rifts have become evermore apparent amid the conflict in the Middle East. In late October, Erdoğan cancelled a planned visit to Israel and told lawmakers from his party that Hamas is “not a terrorist organisation, but a liberation group, a mujahideen group that struggles to protect its lands and citizens.”

The Commission responded by blasting Erdoğan’s government for its “support to terrorist group Hamas following its attack against Israel,” saying the rhetoric was “in complete disagreement with the EU approach.”

On Wednesday, Borrell explained: "For us, Hamas remains a terrorist organisation [...] Turkey has a different approach and at the same time is something which is coherent with the position with the Muslim world."

"Certainly there is not a high level of alignment on our foreign policy with Turkey and we want to organise our exchanges on foreign policy in order to be more effective and operational," Borrell added.

Despite aligning with the EU's condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has opted not to join Western-led sanctions in a bid to maintain its ties with Moscow. Ankara is also facing increasing scrutiny for potentially facilitating sanctions evasion, amid a spike in exports of critical goods to Russia.

Borrell said the bloc was "clear" that it expected Ankara to continue to collaborate with European and western partners to clam down on sanctions circumvention in order to benefit from closer economic cooperation.