The European Union remains divided over establishing a coherent stance on Turkey ahead of the upcoming EU summit.
European Union (EU) leaders are expected to meet on December 10 and 11 to discuss, among other things, the bloc’s relations with Turkey. EU countries are far from united in achieving a common stance, with fears that a hardening political position may ultimately end up hurting both sides.
Relations between the two sides have been strained over disagreements about Turkey’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Turkey, however, sees things differently, arguing that it has a legitimate and legal capacity to act in these areas.
During the last summit held on October 1, EU leaders stated that it is essential that the bloc has a “cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey.”
Tensions between the two sides have continued to simmer with countries like France, Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration pushing for sanctions against Turkey.
Countries like Germany - the bloc’s powerhouse - Italy, Spain and Malta have sought a negotiated solution with Ankara to resolve outstanding issues.
According to reports, “the feelings in Brussels are numb” as to whether the bloc can come to a common position on Turkey.
Part of that paralysis derives the differing policies of the individual member states.
France, for instance, has sought to rally EU capitals against Turkey’s presence in Libya. Its diplomatic position, however, has been undercut by its alliance and support of the renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar who almost overthrew the UN and EU recognised government in Tripoli.
Turkey, on the other hand, has said that its presence in Libya has been at the invitation of the internationally recognised government and therefore legal. Its assistance to the GNA is to ensure that it doesn’t fall against Haftar's militias which threaten to turn the country once again into a one-man rule.
Even as France has tried to make its case internationally, its position on Libya has been branded as hypocritical. EU members have found Paris’s stance wanting especially since the EU also backs the internationally recognised government of Tripoli.
Italy is another EU country that has been hesitant to press a hardline position on Turkey. It is a frontline country for migrants seeking to come to Europe. Any chaos fomenting large scale migrations, as Haftar’s militias would almost certainly bring, could also result in political instability in Italy.
At its height, thousands of migrants attempted to make the dangerous journey to Italy. That flow has now been largely stemmed by the Tripoli-based government.
Turkey’s presence in Libya, therefore, has proved to be a stabilising force for the government in Tripoli but also in ensuring that far-right parties are not able to capitalise on uncontrollable migration waves in Italy.
Malta, which is less than 350km from the Libyan coast, shares similar fears regarding irregular migration. Turkey and Malta have also committed to work together to stabilise Libya and Ankara in assisting Maltese companies returning to the country.
Another EU country that has been reluctant to break its relationship with Turkey is Spain. In a recent interview, the Spanish ambassador to Turkey, Javier Hergueta, said the Eastern Mediterranean "cannot poison other relations, it has to be encapsulated."
The ambassador went on to add that his country doesn’t “believe in sanctions” and that there can only be a bilateral negotiated solution between Greece and Turkey when it comes to issues in the Eastern Mediterranean.
There is also another reason why Madrid would rather not use sanctions on Turkey, largely based around the heavy debt exposure Spanish banks have in the Turkish market. They amount to more than $80 billion.
If the relationship between the EU and Turkey were to worsen, it could leave Spain’s economy exposed to a deteriorating political and economic climate.
Greece, however, has been pushing the EU to the bilateral tensions it has had with Turkey, the bloc's problem.
When Turkey and Libya signed a maritime agreement delineating their respective continental shelves, Athens protested, arguing that it infringed in its territorial waters. Ankara rejected this claim.
Attempts by Athens to get other EU countries to adopt its position have been met with scepticism especially since the bloc’s relationship with Turkey is important in several strategic areas.
The upcoming summit, therefore, will also be about how much more time the EU wants to give diplomacy and whether it can pressure Athens to come to the negotiating table with Ankara. A breakdown in relations may well leave both sides worse off.