EU to offer Turkey aid, trade help despite rights concerns

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BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union leaders are set Thursday to provide new incentives to Turkey to improve cooperation on migration and trade despite democratic backsliding in the country and lingering concern about its energy exploration ambitions in the Mediterranean Sea.

EU diplomats said before the videoconference summit that the leaders will offer Turkey a “positive agenda” rather than brandish threats or sanctions. The aim is take advantage of a lull in tensions between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey and to avoid any hostile act that could undermine a new peace effort for Cyprus.

“The EU has parked sanctions in the drawer for now. But, on the flip side, the bloc might not have much to offer Turkey in the way of carrots,” said Alissa de Carbonnel at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

The EU is keen to resuscitate the 2016 “EU Turkey Statement” – which massively reduced migrant arrivals into the Greek islands – and an update of its terms is likely. Under it, the EU offered Turkey some 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) for Syrian refugees and other incentives to prevent people leaving.

“I think it should continue to be implemented and continue to be the key framework for cooperation on migration,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week. Borrell is submitting a report to the leaders on the troubled state of EU-Turkey ties.

For Borrell, the deal saved lives, stopped most people trying to cross the Aegean Sea to islands like Lesbos and Samos, and improved things for refugees in Turkey. But for aid groups, it created open-air prisons where thousands have languished in squalid conditions while others were blocked in Turkey.

The agreement ground to a standstill a year ago as the coronavirus spread and after Turkey, angered by a lack of EU support for its invasion of northern Syria, gave approval for thousands of migrants to leave, sparking clashes at the Greek border.

Still, European money continues to pour in. In December, the EU extended two programs for Syrian refugees worth almost half a billion euros (nearly $600 million). The money doesn’t go to the government, but the migrants’ spending will flow into the Turkish economy.

The leaders are also likely to greenlight an update of a customs union agreement between the EU and Turkey, which took effect in late 1995 and removed duties on most Turkish goods and produce entering the 27-nation bloc.

But despite the positive signals from Ankara recently, the leaders are wary that this might only be a moment of calm manufactured by Turkey to suit its interests. Concerns about rights abuses in Turkey, which has been a candidate for EU membership for more than 20 years, continue to mount.

In the last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended Turkey’s participation in the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention aimed at preventing violence against women. The move was a blow to the country’s women’s rights movement, which says domestic violence and femicide are on the rise.

The EU also criticized Turkish authorities for stripping a prominent pro-Kurdish legislator of his parliamentary seat and seeking to shut down his political party, saying these moves add to concerns over the “backsliding of rights.”

Cyprus, backed by Greece and possibly France, is likely to strongly resist any attempt to give too much away Thursday, given Turkey’s contested gas exploration work in waters off the island, and Erdogan’s proposal for a two-state solution there.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup aiming at uniting the island with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared independence in the northern third nearly a decade later, but only Turkey has recognized them. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004.

The U.N. is hosting informal talks April 27-29 in Geneva between the rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides as well as the island’s “guarantors” – Greece, Turkey and former colonial ruler Britain – to gauge chances of resuming peace talks. These aren’t talks that the EU wants to derail before they even begin.

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Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.

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