Mixed expectations on Turkey sanctions going into EU summit

Expectations vary on whether the European Union will take any strong actions against Turkey for its latest decisions that several EU leaders consider undemocratic. 

On Thursday, the EU is slated to host its next summit where it is due to announce how it will approach the bloc’s array of problems. EU foreign ministers ahead of the summit met in Brussels on Monday, where they received a report from the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell that detailed relations as they stand with Turkey. Following their meeting, the ministers expressed a mix of cautious optimism and disappointment.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas captured these feelings best in a tweet to reporters after meeting with his counterparts. 

“In Turkey, there is light and shadow. The HDP Party ban and the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention are wrong signs,” Maas tweeted on Monday.  

The week leading up to the foreign ministers conference was particularly eventful in Turkish politics. On March 17, prosecutors filed an indictment with Turkey’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, that seeks the closure of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on charges that it is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This came not long after the Turkish parliament stripped HDP member Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu of his immunity over a tweet from 2016 that was deemed terrorist propaganda. 

The PKK is recognised as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. HDP members deny links to the PKK and their party is the second largest opposition bloc in Turkey.

On Saturday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree that withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty that was aimed at ending violence against women. Thousands of women across Turkey took to the streets to protest in response and Western leaders, including U.S President Joe Biden, condemned the move.

In spite of these moves running contrary to Erdoğan’s proposals to reform Turkey’s human rights situation, European officials signalled they were still ready to engage positively with Ankara. Maas paid acknowledgement to what he described as “relaxation in the eastern Mediterranean” and insisted dialogue was the way forward. 

The summit this week follows months of a Turkish charm offensive that is aimed at de-escalating tensions with the bloc while staving off the possibility of sanctions against it over its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

Last Friday, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel held a videoconference with Erdoğan. Following the call, they released a statement that “underlined the importance of de-escalation” and other confidence building measures. There was no mention of human rights or the case to close the HDP. 

Erdoğan’s office issued a statement afterwards, saying Turkey expects concrete actions to advance relations at the coming summit.

Expectations were similarly high last December during the last EU summit, taking place at a time when relations with Turkey were more tense. Ultimately a decision on sanctions was not taken, despite pressure from member-states Greece and Cyprus for the bloc to take a stronger action against Turkey. 

Appetite for action still remained even after de-escalation between Turkey and the bloc in recent weeks. Arriving in Brussels on Monday, Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias endorsed Borell’s report because he said it “correctly sees Turkey as a problem  that concerns the whole of Europe” and underscores the challenges it still presents. 

However, he criticised some of the language in the report as it relates to Turkish violations of Greek and Cypriot maritime boundaries or its reopening of the Cypriot town of Varosha last year in violation of a United Nations resolution on the matter.

To this end, the German foreign minister said sanctions remain an option and that the EU “reserves the right to impose them should Turkey steer away from the constructive course which it has taken lately” on specific topics. In a strategy document viewed by the euobserver, biting sanctions were under consideration including measures against Turkey’s tourism sector and curtailing lending from the European Investment Agency.

Some sources interpreted any talk of sanctions to be unlikely. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one diplomat told Reuters that it would take something “very close to a military incident, or a dramatic change in Berlin’s approach” to change the current calculus. Another anonymous source described talk of sanctions to the Cyprus Mail as a “joke”. 

Germany, as well as other large European powers like Spain and Italy, have frequently opposed sanctions on Turkey. Berlin in particular has prioritised dialogue over sanctions, owing to fears of how this would impact the migration deal the EU struck with Ankara in 2016 to curb the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe. 

The last remaining hope for those looking for a tough response to Turkey was the Washington. After the last summit, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said that any punitive action against Turkey would be coordinated with Washington once the Biden administration settled into office. 

However, expectations for an American lead on sanctioning Turkey together with the E.U were dashed when Reuters reported that U.S officials discouraged further sanctions over Turkish drilling in the eastern Mediterranean. The reason cited was a belief that Turkey signalled a willingness to compromise and the Biden administration was willing to allow it that chance.