Turkiye’s decades-long EU dream faces new challenges

Erdogan told reporters on Saturday that Turkiye may unilaterally part ways with the EU if necessary, implying that the country is considering ending its membership bid. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 September 2023

Turkiye’s decades-long EU dream faces new challenges

  • EU should find ways to engage with Ankara, analyst tells Arab News
  • EU, Ankara should agree on elements like Customs Union, visa facilitation, analyst says

ANKARA: The latest Turkiye report of the European Parliament, with its critical tone, infuriated several decision-makers in Ankara.

But the latest statement from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan marks the first official setback from the country’s strategic bid for EU membership in critical times as Turkiye grapples with significant economic challenges and seeks to strengthen its trade relationships with EU member states.

Before his departure to New York on Saturday to attend the 78th UN General Assembly in New York, Erdogan told reporters that Turkiye may unilaterally part ways with the EU if necessary, implying that the country is considering ending its membership bid.

“The EU is making efforts to sever ties with Turkiye,” he said.

“We will evaluate the situation and if needed, we will part ways with the EU.”

The European Parliament’s report, which prompted Erdogan’s response, left no room for ambiguity.

It stressed that any resumption of accession negotiations between the EU and Turkiye hinged upon Turkiye’s implementation of critical democratization reforms.

Moreover, the report recommended that the EU explore “a parallel and realistic framework” for its relations with Turkiye, hinting at a recalibration of their engagement.

Turkiye has been an official candidate to join the EU since 1999, but accession talks have stalled especially over the past five years over the bloc’s concerns about democratic backsliding.

However, during the NATO Summit in Vilnius on July 11-12, Erdogan made it clear that his approval for Sweden’s NATO membership bid would be contingent upon the revival of Turkiye’s EU membership talks.

Erdogan also confirmed that full membership remained a key strategic objective for Turkiye and called for the re-opening of accession talks.

“Although it is not always clear and consistent what Erdogan wants from the EU, it seems that he wants a relationship with no conditionality,” Nilgun Arisan-Eralp, director of the Center for European Union Studies at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, told Arab News.

“I think he regards Turkiye (as) so powerful — with its presumed geopolitical weight — that no country or intergovernmental or supranational institutional can tell the country what to do,” she said.

“He pretends he is not aware of the membership conditions, especially those pertaining to democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights. Such a relationship can be established between the EU and a third country that might be important for a specific cause — like Tunisia in the case of refugees — but not with a country that can be considered as a candidate,” she added.

Turkiye was not invited to the EU’s recent enlargement meetings, first in the Greek capital Athens on Aug. 21, despite the presence of other candidate countries, and then to the Gymnich foreign ministers’ meeting on Aug. 31 in the Spanish city Toledo — another development that irked policymakers in Ankara and triggered the feeling of exclusion.

“EU could have invited Turkiye to enlargement meetings to discuss the progress or lack of progress together with other candidate countries in a multilateral framework,” said Arisan-Eralp.

"A dialogue could have been initiated with Turkiye in the areas of foreign policy and security in different platforms like the Gymnich meetings,” she said.

What a comprehensive but realistic positive agenda between the EU and Turkiye would look like has now become a matter of debate.

“Given the current circumstances, it would be based on mutually beneficial cooperation areas,” Arisan-Eralp said. 

“It might include modernization of the Customs Union, cooperation on a green and digital transition, facilitation of visa procedures and a dialogue on foreign policy,” she said.

The growing trend of rejection of Turkish citizens’ EU visa applications over the past few years has recently prompted the Turkish government to negotiate with the EU to facilitate visa procedures.   

Following the recent visit by Oliver Varhelyi, the EU’s commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement, in Ankara on Sept. 5, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said that both parties have agreed to work on visa facilitation for Turkish businessmen and students.

Technical teams are also expected to begin working on the modernization of the Customs Union soon, overdue for an update, as it is limited to industrial goods and processed agricultural products. 

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy, thinks that after the elections Erdogan has adopted a positive rhetoric toward the EU and expressed his willingness to revitalize this relationship.

“But the disadvantage is that so far, this has remained at the level of rhetoric,” he told Arab News.

“What really needs to happen is that the Turkish government should essentially create a domestic momentum for political reforms, for improvements in the rule of law, also by addressing the ongoing procedure within the Council of Europe with regards to the non-compliance of the rulings of (the) European Court of Human Rights,” he said.

Yet, the situation is far from one-sided. On the EU side as well, Ulgen said, there are a number of shortcomings.

Currently, the EU seems paralyzed, unable to harness alternative means of interaction with Ankara beyond the long-stalled accession process. 

The EU should find ways to engage with Turkiye, Ulgen said. 

“Now they are unable to do that and that points to a certain strategic blindness on the side of the EU because there are different channels of engagement with Turkiye above and beyond the stalled accession, like visa liberalization, modernization of the Customs Union, cooperation on renewables, green transition.

“But so far, the EU has been unable to at least try to unblock any of these channels of engagement,” he said.

“Even a little gesture like inviting (the) Turkish minister to (the) Gymnich-style foreign ministers’ (meeting) didn’t happen,” he added.

For the foreseeable future, Ulgen thinks that the accession track will remain stalled in the absence of a strong democracy moment in Turkiye, which he considers a squandered opportunity. After the war in Ukraine, the issue of enlargement has once again become a realistic theme for the EU, where there is an ongoing discussion about how to open the door of accession to countries like Ukraine and Moldova as well as the Western Balkans.

“Turkiye is totally absent from that discussion. Against that backdrop, the EU and Turkiye should at least agree for the near future on some elements of positive agenda, starting by the Customs Union and visa facilitation issue,” he said, implying the urgent need for forging a path toward constructive engagement in the near future. 

Turkiye is the EU’s seventh biggest trade partner, while the EU remains Turkiye’s largest merchandise import and export partner.

The bilateral trade volume reached a record $200 billion last year. Technical works to improve trade ties between Turkiye and the EU will begin during Trade Working Group meetings in October.

Libya’s eastern govt postpones Derna reconstruction conference

Updated 7 sec ago

Libya’s eastern govt postpones Derna reconstruction conference

BENGHAZI: Libya’s eastern authorities on Sunday announced the postponement of a reconstruction conference for the flood-hit city of Derna that had been planned for October 10 but was met with international skepticism.
The conference was put off until November 1-2 to “give companies and design offices the necessary time to prepare their projects,” the committee charged with planning the meeting said in a statement.

Yemen’s state-run airline suspends only route out of Sanaa over Houthi restrictions on its funds

Updated 28 min 12 sec ago

Yemen’s state-run airline suspends only route out of Sanaa over Houthi restrictions on its funds

  • Yemen Airways cancels commercial flights from Sanaa to the Jordanian capital of Amman
  • Even before the conflict, Yemen had been the Arab world’s poorest country

CAIRO: Yemen’s state-run carrier has suspended the only air route out of the country’s rebel-held capital to protest Houthi restrictions on its funds, officials said Sunday.
Yemen Airways cancels commercial flights from Sanaa’s international airport to the Jordanian capital of Amman. The airline had been operating six commercial and humanitarian flights a week between Sanaa and Amman as of the end of September.
The Sanaa-Amman air route was reintroduced last year as part of a UN-brokered cease-fire between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government. The cease-fire agreement expired in October 2022, but the warring factions refrained from taking measures that would lead to a flare-up of all-out fighting.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and forced the government into exile.
The airline blamed the Iranian-backed Houthis for the move because they were withholding $80 million in the company’s funds in Houthi-controlled banks in Sanaa. It said in a statement on Saturday that the rebels rejected a proposal to release 70 percent of the funds. The statement said the airline’s sales in Sanaa exceed 70 percent of its revenues.
The statement said the Houthi ban on the funds was linked to “illegal and unreasonable demands, and caused severe damage to the airline’s activities.”
The Houthi-controlled Saba news agency quoted an unnamed source condemning the airline’s move. The source was quoted as saying that the rebels offered to release 60 percent of the airline’s funds in Sanaa.
Even before the conflict, Yemen had been the Arab world’s poorest country. The war has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
The dispute between the Houthis and the national airline comes as the rebels and Saudi Arabia have appeared close to a peace agreement in recent months. Saudi Arabia received a Houthi delegation last month for peace talks, saying the negotiations had “positive results.”
The Saudi-Houthi efforts, however, were overshadowed by an attack blamed on the Houthis last week that killed four Bahraini troops who were part of a coalition force patrolling Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
The Houthis, meanwhile, barred four activists from the Mwatana for Human Rights group from boarding their flight at Sanaa airport on Saturday “without providing legal justification,” group said.
It said that Houthi officials interrogated Mwatana’s chairperson Radhya Al-Mutawakel, her deputy and three other members before telling them that they were barred from travel according to “higher orders.”
A spokesman for the rebels was not immediately available for comment.
Mwatana said the ban was “just one episode in a long series of violations” by the rebels at the Sanaa airport on land routes linking rebel-held areas with other parts of Yemen.
The rebels also rounded up dozens of people who took to the streets last month in the Houthi-held areas, including Sanaa, to commemorate the anniversary of Yemen’s Sep. 26 revolution, which marks the establishment of Yemen’s republic in 1962, Amnesty International said.
“It is outrageous that demonstrators commemorating a national historical moment found themselves attacked, arrested, and facing charges simply because they were waving flags,” Amnesty said, and called on Houthis to immediately release those detained.

Suicide attack wounds 2 police officers in Ankara near parliament: Interior minister

Updated 25 min 14 sec ago

Suicide attack wounds 2 police officers in Ankara near parliament: Interior minister

  • There is no immediate information on the assailants

ANKARA: A suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in the heart of the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Sunday, hours before parliament was scheduled to reopen after a three-month summer recess. A second assailant was killed in a shootout with police, the interior minister said.

Two police officers were slightly injured during the attack near an entrance to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, Minister Ali Yerlikaya said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

The attack occurred as parliament was set to re-open with an address by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There was no immediate information on the assailants. Kurdish and far-left militant groups as well as the Daesh group have carried out deadly attacks throughout the country in the past.

Yerlikaya said the assailants arrived at the scene inside a light commercial vehicle.

Television footage showed bomb squads working near a parked vehicle in the area which is located near the Turkish Grand National Assembly and other government buildings. A rocket launcher could be seen lying near the vehicle.

Police cordoned off access to the city center.

The two police officers were being treated in a hospital and were not in serious condition, media reports said.

Dozens arrested as protesters mark Iran’s ‘Bloody Friday’: Activists

Updated 01 October 2023

Dozens arrested as protesters mark Iran’s ‘Bloody Friday’: Activists

  • The violence marked the single deadliest day of months-long protests that erupted in Iran last year

PARIS: Iranian security forces made dozens of arrests Saturday as protesters in the southeast commemorated the killing of dozens of demonstrators in the region one year ago, human rights groups said.
At least 104 people were killed, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights NGO, in what is known as “Bloody Friday,” when security forces fired on a protest in Zahedan, the main city of Sistan-Baluchistan province, on September 30 last year.
The violence marked the single deadliest day of months-long protests that erupted in Iran last year.
The Zahedan protests were triggered by reports a teenage girl had been raped in custody by a police commander and took place in parallel to nationwide demonstrations sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, after her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the country’s dress code.
Activists have long complained that the ethnic Baluch population in Sistan-Baluchistan, who adhere to Sunni Islam not the Shiite branch of the faith dominant in Iran, suffer from discrimination.
Security forces fired tear gas and live rounds for a second straight day to disperse protesters who turned out in Zahedan to mark the anniversary, the Baluch-focused rights group Haalvsh said.
Throughout Saturday, businesses in Zahedan and other towns observed a general strike, it said, adding that “dozens” of people had been arrested.
The group posted footage with the sound of gunfire clearly audible amid a heavy security presence in the city.
Security forces had already used live fire to disperse protesters on Friday, wounding at least 25 people, including children, according to the Baloch Activists Campaign group. There was no immediate word on any casualties in Saturday’s unrest.
Even as the protest movement dwindled elsewhere in Iran, residents of Zahedan have held regular Friday protests throughout the past 12 months.
The city’s Friday prayer leader, Molavi Abdolhamid, who has been outspoken in his support of the protests over the past year, issued a new call for justice over “Bloody Friday,” telling the faithful to “know your rights.”
Footage posted on social media on Friday showed chaotic scenes as hospitals filled with injured, including children, while people on the streets sought to escape to safety amid the sound of heavy gunfire.
IHR said that the protests in Zahedan and other cities were again “brutally crushed” with authorities using “live ammunition, pellet bullets and tear gas against unarmed protesters.”
The executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, Hadi Ghaemi, condemned the “horrifying display of indiscriminate violence... as the state attempts to suppress peaceful demonstrations.”
“It is imperative for the international community to shine a spotlight on this violence and to hold Iranian officials accountable in international courts, invoking the principle of international jurisdiction,” he said.

No reprieve from hardship in South Sudan for people fleeing Sudan conflict

Updated 01 October 2023

No reprieve from hardship in South Sudan for people fleeing Sudan conflict

  • South Sudan is no stranger to humanitarian crisis, having had its own share since achieving statehood in 2011
  • Experts say the country is in no position to handle the large and sudden influx of displaced people from Sudan

NAIROBI: Civilians displaced by the conflict in Sudan have sought sanctuary in the world’s youngest country next door, the Republic of South Sudan, only to face a daunting new set of challenges.

An estimated 250,000 people — including a large number of South Sudanese who had been living in Sudan — have crossed the border since fighting erupted in Sudan in April, with many now housed in overcrowded camps lacking food, sanitation and basic healthcare services.

High malnutrition rates and outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and measles among the new arrivals testify to the dire health conditions, which aid agencies operating in the area say is one of the many serious causes for concern.

Luggage is transported on a donkey-drawn cart at Sudan’s Qalabat border crossing with Ethiopia on July 31, 2023 amid fighting between the Sudan armed forces and paramilitary RSF. (AFP file photo)

The UN has given warning that the number of people fleeing Sudan could double by the end of the year unless a settlement between the warring parties is reached soon.

Aside from being unprepared to absorb this tide of humanity in search of shelter and sustenance, South Sudan’s own political and economic shortcomings render it an ineffective broker in ending the conflict in Sudan.

This is despite the mediation efforts of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, who recently hosted Sudan’s de-facto leader and head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, in the capital Juba.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, right, welcomes Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council and Sudan’s armed force chief, in Juba, South Sudan, on Sept. 04, 2023. (Handout photo via Getty Images)

South Sudan is no stranger to hardship and adversity, having had its fair share of conflicts since gaining independence in 2011. Like its northern neighbor, from which it seceded, South Sudan is also grappling with political volatility and ethnic strife.

Add to the mix South Sudan’s limited resources and rudimentary infrastructure, and the country is in no position to handle such a large and sudden influx of impoverished people.

“The majority of these refugees are women, children, and young adults, with a notable concentration of youth between the ages of 12 and 22,” John Dabi, South Sudan’s deputy commissioner for refugee affairs, told Arab News.


250,000 Sudanese refugees and South Sudanese returnees who have crossed the border since the conflict began.

5 million Total number of people uprooted by the conflict, including 1 million who have fled to neighboring countries.

7,500 People killed since the onset of violence, according to conservative estimates of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Particularly, Juba and the border town of Renk have come under pressure from a sudden explosion in population, which has led to an acute shortage of basic necessities, including food, medicine and shelter.

Then there is the impact of a fickle climate, as South Sudan’s rainy season leads to the flooding of entire districts and turns roads into impassable mud tracks, hindering aid deliveries and access to remote refugee camps.

Predictably, South Sudan’s economy is a shambles, despite the recent launch of the National Economic Conference, which is meant to accelerate development.

A boy walks at a camp for displaced persons in Bentiu, South Sudan. (AFP file photo)

Firas Raad, the World Bank representative in South Sudan, recently urged the government to strive for more stable macroeconomic conditions, robust public financial management, and effective governance reforms to improve conditions for its people.

The parlous state of the country’s economy calls into question Juba’s credibility as a mediator in Sudan’s conflict, Suzanne Jambo, a South Sudanese policy analyst and former government adviser, told Arab News.

“South Sudan still struggles to achieve a stable transition to a permanent status, including a unified army, agreed-upon constitutional arrangements, and fairly elected representatives, not to mention conducting the elections,” she said.

Instability in South Sudan is not just attributable to issues of governance and economics. The ethnic and tribal spillovers of the Sudanese conflict are all too evident, with millions fleeing to neighboring countries and exposing the political divisions within Sudan and along its porous borders.

For instance, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) group has been recruiting fighters from among Darfur’s Arab tribes.

Internally displaced women fetch water from a well in Bentiu in South Sudan. (AFP file photo)

Given the possibility of further escalation of ethnic tensions, experts believe coordinated efforts are essential for the proper distribution of humanitarian aid as well as conflict prevention and resolution strategies.

Sudanese civilians arriving in South Sudan represent a mosaic of backgrounds mirroring the country’s ethnic, racial and religious diversity. To minimize the chances of inter-communal violence, separate settlements, rather than traditional refugee camps, have been established.

“A critical aspect of managing the refugee crisis is preventing inter-community conflicts,” said Dabi, the deputy commissioner for refugee affairs. However, the most pressing issue facing displaced Sudanese in South Sudan is the scarcity of essential resources, he added.

The situation of people who crossed over from Sudan into other neighboring countries appears to be equally dire.

In Chad, where more than 400,000 people have fled the violence in Darfur, aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres says the situation has become so desperate that “people are feeding their children on insects, grass, and leaves.”

People wait next to passenger buses as smoke billows in an area in Khartoum where fighting between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary forces continues to this day. (AFP file photo)

Amid severe shortages, “some have gone five weeks without receiving food,” Susana Borges, MSF’s emergency coordinator in Adre, said in a statement. Camps also lack water, sanitation, shelter, and medical care.

“The most urgent health needs we are dealing with are malaria, diarrhea, and malnutrition,” Borges added. According to the UN, dozens of children under the age of five have already died of malnutrition in Chadian camps.

The conflict in Sudan, now in its fifth month, was triggered by a plan to incorporate the RSF into the SAF.

On April 15 a long-running power struggle between the Al-Burhan and his former deputy, RSF chief Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, suddenly escalated, prompting the evacuation of foreign nationals and embassy staff.

At least 7,500 people have been killed since the conflict began, according to a conservative estimate from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and the troubled western Darfur region, where the worst of the violence has been taking place, have seen “intensified shelling” as the SAF and the RSF target each other’s bases with “artillery and rocket fire.”

Black smoke billows behind buildings amid ongoing fighting in Khartoum. (AFP)

In central Khartoum, the SAF controls the skies and has carried out regular air strikes, while RSF fighters dominate the streets.

In South Darfur’s regional capital, Nyala, residents say fighter jets have been targeting “RSF leadership.” However, reports from the ground suggest civilians are routinely caught in the crossfire.

UN figures show the fighting has uprooted more than five million people from their homes, including one million who have crossed international borders into neighboring countries.

Over the weekend, a cholera outbreak was reported in eastern Sudan and investigations launched to check whether it had spread to Khartoum and South Kordofan state.

A street vendor sells shoes and slippers in Port Sudan, Sudan, on Sept. 26, 2023. (REUTERS)

The conflict has also seen a surge in gender-based violence, as confirmed by numerous credible reports of rape, human trafficking, and increase in early marriage.

Despite multiple diplomatic efforts to broker a truce, the conflict has continued and intensified, leaving those displaced with little prospect of returning to their homes any time soon.

As South Sudan struggles to accommodate its own citizens previously living in Sudan, a recent visit to the country by Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, suggests the international community is taking notice.

However, Peter Van der Auweraert, the UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, has cautioned there could be a significant decline in humanitarian assistance for the country next year.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says humanitarian aid organizations are struggling to meet the needs of the displaced, with only 19 percent of the $1 billion requested from donors so far received.