Wary EU eyes improved Turkey ties as FM visits

Brussels (AFP) –


The European Union will on Thursday press Turkey to make good on recent gestures from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to calm tensions, as Ankara's foreign minister visits Brussels.

Mevlut Cavusoglu will meet EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and then council president Charles Michel on Friday in a push to mend ties between the 27-nation bloc and its hulking southeastern neighbour.

Tensions between Brussels and Ankara reached new levels last year after Turkey repeatedly sent a ship to search for gas deposits in disputed waters, angering the EU and its member states Greece and Cyprus.

But, in the weeks after Turkey withdrew the vessel, Oruc Reis, in November and Brussels announced plans to expand sanctions last month, both sides have softened their rhetoric.

In an important move, Turkey and Greece agreed to hold exploratory talks on their maritime dispute in Istanbul on January 25, resuming consultations suspended in 2016.

Erdogan insisted he wants to "turn a new page" in Ankara's relations with Brussels in a phone call with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

"What is very important for us, the European Union and its member states, is to see the implementation of these intentions and declarations in practice," said EU spokesman Peter Stano.

"The declarations are good but what is be better is concrete facts and actions."

The EU has a raft of major issues with Turkey, including Ankara's role in the Syria, Libya and Nagorny Karabakh conflicts.

But it was spiralling tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, during which gunboats from NATO allies Turkey and Greece collided, that threatened to strain ties to the breaking point.

Greece and Cyprus, backed up by France, pressed for broad punitive measures against Turkey.

EU leaders in December settled on expanding a sanctions blacklist of individuals involved in drilling in Cypriot waters that currently contains two Turkish energy company bosses.

It remains unclear when new names will be formally be added, but an EU diplomat said there could be a provisional agreement on them at a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers next week.

- Two months to convince -

More ominous for Ankara is that EU leaders also tasked Borrell to come up with options for tougher punishment before their next summit in March in case Ankara resumes what Brussels called its "unilateral actions and provocations".

While France, Greece and Cyprus pushed hardest for a tough line on Turkey, others led by economic powerhouse Germany have been far keener for a more diplomatic approach.

Many are anxious to keep Ankara on side as the EU still relies on it to prevent refugees from Syria heading into the bloc under a shaky 2016 deal.

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Ankara on Monday after cancelling a trip last year and hailed "positive signals" from Turkey on the issue of gas exploration.

But Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn insisted to AFP that the EU remained "determined to defend its interests and those of its member states".

"Nobody intends to wipe the slate clean," he said.

Asselborn said the EU hoped for a "lasting detente" with Erdogan that would mean it did not have to apply more sanctions when leaders meet again in March.

"But we have to make sure we are ready in case we are not left with a choice," he warned.

Turkey launched talks to join the EU in 2005, but they became frozen as Erdogan forged a more confrontational path.

Ankara is looking to win concessions on visa free travel and an upgrade on its customs union with the EU.

But European diplomats say that major economic woes at home and the departure of Erdogan's ally Donald Trump as president of the United States are what is pushing the Turkish leader to take a more conciliatory approach.

"The Turks are trying to redeem themselves," said one senior European diplomat.

"But the Europeans are waiting to see if this attitude is sincere and lasting."