EU offers Turkey aid, trade help despite rights concerns

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European Council President Charles Michel, top of screen, speaks with EU leaders, via videoconference link, during a EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, March 25, 2021. European Union leaders are looking for ways of ramping up COVID-19 vaccination across the region during their virtual meeting Thursday amid shortage of doses, spikes of new coronavirus cases, a feud with the United Kingdom and internal quarrels. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP)

BRUSSELS – European Union leaders on Thursday offered new incentives to Turkey to improve cooperation on migration and trade despite democratic backsliding in the country and lingering concerns about its energy ambitions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Seizing on the recent conciliatory tone from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leaders said, should the relative calm continue, “the European Union is ready to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner to enhance cooperation in a number of areas of common interest."

This includes “a mandate for the modernization” of customs arrangements, the future launch of “high level dialogues” on issues like the pandemic, climate change, counter-terrorism and regional issues, and strengthened cooperation “on people-to-people contacts and mobility.”

The “customs union” agreement between the EU and Turkey removed duties on most Turkish goods and produce entering the 27-nation bloc, but has not functioned as well as the government in Ankara would like.

The leaders also ordered the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, to build on the EU-Turkey migrant agreement from 2016 and explore ways to continue to help finance the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as those in Jordan and Lebanon.

That deal massively reduced migrant arrivals into the Greek islands, compared to 2015 when hundreds of thousands of people landed on European shores. Under it, the EU offered Ankara 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) to help Syrian refugees and other incentives to prevent people from leaving Turkey to go to Europe.

The EU believes the deal saved countless lives, stopped most people from trying to cross the Aegean Sea to Greek islands like Lesbos and Samos, and improved life for refugees in Turkey. It wants to use the agreement as a model for similar arrangements with countries in North Africa.

But aid groups say the pact created open-air prisons where thousands have languished in squalid conditions on the Greek islands while others were blocked in Turkey.