EU ministers aim to ease Turkey tensions

EU ministers aim to ease Turkey tensions
The 27 ministers were to discuss the whole gamut of EU-Turkey relations as they met in Brussels in person for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic erupted.
3 min read
Since 2016 the EU relies on Turkey to curb migrants migrating to Europe. [Getty]

EU foreign ministers met on Monday to seek a way to calm tensions with Turkey, particularly over claims of illegal oil drilling in the Mediterranean and Ankara's human rights record.

Several ministers voiced concern at the direction Turkey -- still nominally a candidate to join the EU -- has taken under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the decision to turn Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque the latest source of contention.

The 27 ministers were to discuss the whole gamut of EU-Turkey relations as they met in Brussels in person for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic erupted.

The situation in Hong Kong is also on the agenda, with Europe increasingly worried about the new security law imposed by Beijing.

The EU is unhappy at what it says is Turkey's illegal drilling for oil and gas off the coast of Cyprus, as well as Ankara's actions in support of the UN-recognised government in Libya and accusations Erdogan's government is eroding rights and democracy at home.

France is particularly incensed about fellow NATO member Turkey's military support of the Tripoli government, suspecting Ankara of breaching a UN arms embargo on the oil-rich but restive north African country.

There are calls from some quarters to punish Turkey over some or all of these disputes, but EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell, who travelled to Ankara for talks with Turkish ministers last week, has stressed the need to defuse tensions through dialogue.

And since 2016 the EU has relied on Turkey to stem the flow of migrants trying to reach Europe from the Middle East, Asia and Africa -- a fact Ankara has not shied away from leveraging.

"The dynamics of retaliation do not make the Mediterranean a more secure and stable zone -- this will only be achieved through dialogue and negotiations where discrepancies exist," Borrell told the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee last week.

A senior EU official said Borrell was hoping for a clear signal from ministers that he should "urgently talk to Turkey on how we can de-escalate the situation".

But anger is running high among some EU countries, with Luxembourg's veteran Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn slamming the Hagia Sophia move as a "strike against civilisation" and warning Ankara's actions against rights defenders suggested it "despises democracy and despises its own people".

Alexander Schallenberg, the foreign minister of Austria -- which frequently takes a tough line on Turkey -- called the Hagia Sophia change "the latest link in a chain of provocations" and said Ankara was "simply not a reliable partner for Europe".

On Hong Kong, Borrell said as he arrived for the talks that the final version of the law was "more draconian than expected" and ministers will discuss how the EU might respond.

Officials say that if they get a clear signal from ministers, they can prepare options for a response within days -- but with the EU deeply divided over how to handle China, finding the necessary unanimity to take action is extremely difficult.

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