When European leaders meet later this week, they will have a long list of issues to discuss, from sanctions on Belarus to the management of the Covid-19 crisis as European tourism picks up. But another big item on their agenda will be relations with Turkey.
There certainly is plenty to discuss. Europe’s difficult neighbour to the east has once been a poster child of the magical transformative touch of the European club. A predominantly Muslim nation Turkey accelerated its economic and political reforms in a bid to join the EU. Today, it is seen by Europeans as a rising resurgent illiberal power at their doorstep, with a turbulent relationship with Brussels.

European leaders understandably want a stable, less rocky relationship with Turkey and its strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is the ultimate “frenemy” for the EU: While human rights concerns and Ankara’s bellicose moves in its neighbourhood have created rifts in the relationship, economic ties and the 2016 refugee agreement makes Turkey an indispensable partner. As successive EU Council conclusions show, when it comes to Turkey, there isn’t an easy course. The task is simultaneously managing the differences and preserving areas of cooperation, which include the vital topics of trade and refugees. This week’s Council meeting is likely to produce a similarly bland language.

That said, there is one area that Europeans cannot afford to wait much longer and that is bringing Turkey onto the European Green Deal. Turkey is among Europe’s top trading partners and is physically located at Europe’s doorstep. Technically, it is still a candidate country, and though the accession process remains moribund, Turkey’s free-trade agreement with Europe gives Turkish companies a valuable role in Europe’s production chain. Turkish public opinion remains deeply sensitive to environmental issues, and its business community, once the champion of its EU reforms, is now lobbying for the country’s green transformation.

In interviews with Turkey’s business leaders, we noted their awareness that the implementation of a proposed European a carbon border adjustment mechanism would have a major impact on Turkey’s own industrial base which is driven in part by exports to Europe. Quietly, Turkey’s business organisations and civil society have been trying to steer the government towards a more robust, pro-European green economy. This would be good for Turkey and help retain its competitive advantage in the European marketplace. A dialogue with Turkey on the European Green Deal would also allow Europe to once again enter a structured and rules-based conversation with Turkey – and deepen its engagement with civil society.

This initiative helps Europe’s geopolitical position as well. The EU knows that it needs to develop a form of European climate leadership that complements, but is distinct from, the Biden administration’s climate push. By bringing Turkey into the climate equation, Europeans can help meet their future energy needs, make an important contribution to addressing the climate challenge in the Middle East and North Africa, and burnish the EU’s credentials as an autonomous strategic climate actor.

Turkey is a late-comer to climate action. While it has signed the Paris accords, Ankara has not ratified the deal. Over the past few years, Turkish government has also walked back on some of the environmental regulations that were part of Turkey’s customs union agreement with the EU. As Turkey’s 1996 customs union deal badly needs modernization, the real focus of this conversation should be how to bring it in line with a possible legislative package on the European Green Geal – including benchmarks for reducing the carbon footprint of Turkey’s industrial output.

There is always the question of human rights: Would talking to Turkey, in essence, diminish the importance of Europe’s democracy agenda regarding Turkey, in essence rewarding the Erdogan regime for its violation of human rights? Climate action and human rights are separate tracks and climate action should not be the area where the EU imposes benchmarks on its relations with Turkey. Europeans are right to call on Turkey for its democratic backsliding and demand action. But this conversation should be couched in the political process, Council of Europe decisions and EU’s high-level dialogue.

Engaging with Turkey in a structured climate conversation neither improves Turkey’s democracy nor diminishes it. It just provides Europe with an opportunity to form climate leadership in its neighbourhood. And it hopefully also draws in Turkey’s pro-European civil society into a broader climate conversation. In the end, any deal between Turkey and the EU would have to be ratified by the European Parliament, where human rights criteria will be imposed.

Europe’s transition away from carbon-intensive economy is a shared interest between the EU and Turkey and does not stop inside Europe’s border. Integrating Turkey into the European Green Deal would make the EU immensely popular in Turkey, where desire for climate action is spread across the political spectrum, and it would create a new framework to guide a difficult relationship. It cannot ease all the other tensions that exist. But, if both sides have a constructive approach, this might just change the mood music enough to inspire positive developments in other aspects of their relationship.

© Riproduzione riservata