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Calls made to keep channels open at low point in EU's relations with Turkey  

Meeting of the Working Group Turkey also throws light on the ties that bind EU and Turkey.

The sharp deterioration in relations between Turkey and the European Union's member states and institutions has underscored the importance of maintaining lines of communication between local and regional authorities in the EU and Turkey, EU and Turkish politicians and officials said on 16 December.

The comments were made at a meeting of the European Committee of the Regions working group with Turkey, at which speakers also highlighted the inter-dependence between the EU and Turkey and the need for post-pandemic recovery policies that promote a greener and more sustainable economy. The result was the preliminary adoption of a five-year work programme that places environmental protection, climate action and energy at the centre of the shared agenda, alongside the EU's major concerns about the rule of law in Turkey.

Jens Christian Gjesing (DK/PES), chair of the Working Group Turkey and member of Haderslev municipal council, said that the meeting came at "a very complicated moment in the EU-Turkey relations". At the level of local government, relations have been worsened by the decision of Turkey's national authorities to replace democratically elected municipal mayors by centrally appointed trustees in the south-east of the country. Nevertheless, he expressed his strong belief in the role of city diplomacy to build trust among societies and to build up people-to-people relations.

Ignacio Sánchez Amor (ES/S&D), the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, said that the EU and Turkey "have never been so distant", with the two sides "diverging in values, interests and policies". As a result, in the European Parliament, "there is enormous interest in Turkey in an environment that is harsh", he said, noting that his draft report on EU-Turkey relations had received 600 amendments within weeks of its presentation. "Backsliding on the rule of law", an "authoritarian interpretation of the presidential system in an atmosphere dominated by nationalist rhetoric", and a "divergent foreign policy" were three main problems identified by his report, Mr Sánchez Amor stated. A former member of the CoR, MEP Sánchez Amor argued that "to multiply the communications channels is completely important, not only for us, but also for Turkey", saying that "this is a way of sending the message that we are committed to revamp the relations with Turkey".

The gravity of the differences between the two sides were confirmed by Turkey's deputy foreign minister, by representatives of the European Commission and by Laura Batalla, Secretary General of the EU-Turkey Forum. The points of differences that in the characterisation of the European Commission have driven relations to an "all-time low" were summarised in conclusions adopted by the European Council on 10-11 December, which included sanctions linked to "Turkey’s unauthorised drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean". These criticisms of Turkey were, however, coupled with conclusions "aimed at leaving the door open, to a positive agenda in favour in Turkey", according to the Commission.

Faruk Kaymakci, Turkey's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Director for EU Affairs, lamented the current lack of dialogue, blaming the EU for closing down channels of communication – he identified the CoR as one of two remaining forums for political exchange – and warning of a "vicious cycle" being created by the lack of an "accession perspective" for Turkey. While focusing on seven problems in the EU-Turkey relationship, he also drew attention to Turkey's interest in continuing its participation in EU research and education programmes, such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus, and in cross-border cooperation and "town twinning".

The last meeting of the Working Group took place in Edirne in November 2019, bringing together politicians whose regions are involved in cross-border cooperation between the EU and Turkey. A scheduled Working Group meeting in Melikgazi this year was cancelled because of travel restrictions imposed because of COVID-19 pandemic.

For EU and Turkish representatives, the pandemic had laid bare the inter-dependence between the EU and Turkey. Ambassador Mehmet Kemal Bozay, Permanent Delegate of Turkey to the EU, said at the 16 December meeting that "Turkey and EU are in the same boat and need resilient supply lines to be a priority" and that "EU and Turkey should work together in the interests of local communities and focus more on the concepts of the Green Deal". The European Commission said that Turkey had been "a very important supplier" of personal protective equipment to many member states, and that, on both sides, "we need to have more cooperation with local and regional authorities on basic services, such as health and education" and "to tackle the existing irritancies to trade". Deputy Minister Kaymakci and Ambassador Bozay had said that the existing Customs Union between Turkey and the EU needs to be updated.

A major lesson of the pandemic for the mayor of İzmir Metropolitan Municipality, Tunç Soyer (CHP), was the importance of being "a resilient city". He praised the EU for making "a very important and necessary investment into the Green Deal" and said that "we are working in a similar direction, aiming to reach the UN's Sustainable Development Goals while overcoming COVID".

Other Turkish local and regional politicians at the meeting included Yücel Yilmaz (AK Party), Mayor of Balıkesir Metropolitan Municipality, and Birol Ekici, Secretary-General of the Union of Municipalities of Turkey (TBB).

The CoR's delegation to the Working Group Turkey has a fixed membership. They are: Mihkel Juhkami (EE/EPP), of Rakvere City Council; János Ádám Karácsony (HU/EPP), of Tahitótfalu Local Government; Michael Murphy (IE/EPP), of Tipp​erary County Council; Donato Toma (IT/EPP), President of the Molise Region; Concepción Andreu Rodríguez (ES/PES), President of La Rioja; Joseph Cordina (MT/PES), of the Local Councils' Association; Karine Gloanec-Maurin (FR/PES), Deputy Mayor of Couëtron au Perche; Dainis Turlais (LV/Renew Europe), of Rīga City Council; Jean-Noël Verfaillie (FR/RE), Mayor of Marly; Robert Kościuk (PL/ECR), Mayor of Krasnystaw; József Kóbor (HU/European Alliance), Pécs Local Government; and Satu Haapanen (FI/Greens), of Oulu City Council.