Common post-pandemic sustainability agenda discussed at meeting of Turkish and EU local leaders amid signs of improvement in tenor of EU-Turkey relations.
Regional leaders from Turkey and the European Union have expressed some optimism that the strains in the relationship between Turkey and the European Union may ease and that a more productive period of contacts and collaboration is possible, with economic sustainability 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 14 June, highlighted a change in language about the European Union in recent months by Turkish leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
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 at EU has changed, but he emphasised that the change in posture now needed to be demonstrated in action. "Don't send us more love letters," he said. "Send us facts and acts." Discussing areas where progress might now be possible, he said that the EU and Turkey must avoid creating "a lot of expectations because a lot of expectations could lead to a lot of frustrations". The only "folder" that can currently be advanced realistically is a revision of Turkey's Customs Union with the EU, though the human-rights situation in Turkey would be an obstacle.
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, saying 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 an upgrading of contacts with the CoR, by turning the Working Group Turkey into a joint consultative committee with a fixed membership and long-term work programme. "I like the spirit that we have in this group," he said.
He stressed the need for an improvement in relations, saying that the EU "accession perspective drove the most difficult reforms" in Turkey and that "the more the EU is harming our accession perspective, the less incentive we have for domestic reforms".
Jens Christian Gjesing (DK/PES), co-chairman of the Working Group Turkey and a member of Haderslev Council, said: "Despite all the tensions that we have witnessed these last two years, I remain a very positive and optimistic person, and I am convinced that we need to pursue dialogue and cooperation in key areas of common interest, to allow trust to be rebuild among us. Our presence here today is a clear example of this."
Turkey's efforts to support Syrian refugees was also discussed, with the President of Union of Municipalities of Turkey (TBB) – Fatma Şahin (AK Party), Mayor of Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality – presenting some of the work done by Turkish cities, and in particular Gaziantep, to house, educate, and support refugees.
The thematic focus of the meeting was on environmental protection, climate action and energy as part of a common agenda for the EU and Turkey in their efforts to revive their economies in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The European Commission and 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 said that the pandemic had pushed sustainability up their agenda, with practical responses include the creation of urban parks, recycling and an ongoing consultation process between municipalities on post-pandemic urban development.