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Politics

EU to Offer Turkey Aid, Trade Help Despite Rights Concerns

BRUSSELS — 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 concerns about its energy 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 acts that could undermine a new peace effort for divided 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 deal with Turkey that massively reduced migrant arrivals into the Greek islands — and an update of its terms is likely. Under it, the EU offered Turkey 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) to help Syrian refugees and other incentives to prevent people from leaving Turkey to go to Europe.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who has submitted a report to the leaders on EU-Turkey ties, said last week the agreement should "be the key framework for cooperation on migration."

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

The agreement ground to a standstill a year ago as the coronavirus spread and after Turkey allowed thousands of migrants to leave, sparking clashes at the Greek border.

Still, in December, the EU extended two programs for Syrian refugees in Turkey worth almost half a billion euros (nearly $600 million), spending that will flow into Turkey's beleaguered economy.

The leaders are also likely to greenlight an updated customs agreement between the EU and Turkey, which removed duties on most Turkish goods and produce entering the 27-nation bloc.

In a draft summit statement seen by The Associated Press, the leaders will say if the conciliatory line from Ankara continues, "the European Union is ready to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner to enhance cooperation."

This includes "a mandate for the modernization" of the customs union, the future launch of "high level dialogues" on issues like the coronavirus, climate change, counter-terrorism and regional issues, and strengthened cooperation "on people-to-people contacts and mobility."

They also invite the EU's executive body, the European Commission, to explore ways to continue to help finance the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon. However, the text of the draft could well change.

Despite the offers, EU leaders worry that this might only be a moment of calm manufactured by Turkey to suit its interests and concerns about rights abuses continue to mount.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just ended his nation's participation in the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention aimed at preventing violence against women. The move was a blow to Turkey's women's rights movement, which says domestic violence and femicide are on the rise.

The EU also criticized Turkish authorities last week for stripping a prominent pro-Kurdish legislator of his parliamentary seat and seeking to shut down his political party.

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. 

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