Post-pandemic sustainable economic growth agenda discussed at meeting of Turkish and EU local leaders to close a year of improvement in the tenor of EU-Turkey relations.
Regional leaders from Turkey and the European Union have expressed the need to advance in a more positive relationship between Turkey and the European Union, increasing contacts and collaboration, with economic sustainability as a central theme.
The comments came at a meeting of the Working Group Turkey, which was created by the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) to ease cooperation and political dialogue with Turkish municipalities during the accession process. Speakers at the event, which was held on 15 December, agreed on the need to focus on a positive agenda with Turkey, working in areas of common interest. Nevertheless, they also stated that a positive agenda could not replace the Turkish path towards the EU in the framework of the enlargement policy.
The European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, Ignacio Sánchez Amor (ES/S&D), a former member of the CoR, said that the "tonality" of Turkish political rhetoric towards the EU has changed, but he emphasised that the change in posture needed to be demonstrated in action too. In this sense, he reminded participants that Turkey, as a member of the Council of Europe, should implement the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. He expressed his appreciation for the resumption of high-level dialogues, for example, in the field of climate change or public health that have taken place recently which led to constructive contacts between the two parties.
Ambassador Faruk Kaymakcı, Turkish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Director for EU Affairs, addressed criticisms of Turkish policy, including the removal from office of scores of mayors from the opposition, reiterating that the mayors had not been suspended because they were opposition members, "but because of their connection to terrorist activities". He insisted that "local governance is strong in Turkey" and repeated his government's wish for upgrading contacts with the CoR by turning the Working Group Turkey into a joint consultative committee with a fixed membership and long-term work programme.
He stressed the need for improvement in relations, saying that the prospect of EU accession drove the most difficult reforms in Turkey and that in this sense it would be very positive if the EU opened new chapters of negotiation to provide an incentive for domestic reforms.
Henrike Trautmann, responsible for Turkey at the Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) of the European Commission, stressed the Commission belief in local and regional actors as key to addressing some of today's important challenges, from tackling climate change to dealing with the impact of the inflow of refugees. She added that the EU welcomed the fact that Turkey has shown increasing interest in participating in a number of EU programmes facilitating people-to-people contacts and mobility and that the Commission was interested in further expanding this cooperation in the years to come to the benefit of both Turkey and the EU.
Jens Christian Gjesing (DK/PES), co-chair of the Working Group Turkey and a member of Haderslev Council, announced that, inspired by the positive example of the Nicosia initiative, but also the cooperation with Ukraine in the Eastern Partnership, the European Committee of the Regions has recently conducted a survey on peer-to-peer cooperation among its members which will serve to facilitate the potential cooperation and partnership between interested members and targeted local and regional authorities in partner countries such as Turkey.
Turkey's efforts to support Syrian refugees was also discussed, with the Acting President of the Union of Municipalities of Turkey (TBB) – Zeynel Abidin Beyazgül (AK Party), Mayor of Şanlıurfa Metropolitan Municipality – presenting some of the work done by Turkish cities to house, educate, and support refugees.
The thematic focus of the meeting was on local economic development in the framework of the post COVID-19 pandemic. The EU's delegation to Turkey outlined the support that the EU is providing Turkey and Turkish municipalities for projects ranging from transport and maritime decarbonisation to waste water and water-basin management. Turkish delegates, such as Lale Bektaş (CHP) – Councillor of Ankara Metropolitan Municipality – reminded participants that women and girls were most affected economically during crisis periods and, therefore, during and after the pandemic period economic measures should be applied taking gender equality into account. From the discussions it emerged that local authorities in Turkey had pushed sustainability up their agenda. The recent ratification by Turkey of the Paris Agreement was welcomed by all participants.
Ambassador Kemal Bozay, Permanent Delegate of Turkey to the EU, concluded by calling for more fruitful meetings such as this one in order to allow peer-to-peer initiatives between EU and Turkish local and regional authorities to work together to advance a positive agenda that benefits the population.