EU warns de-escalation process in eastern Mediterranean remains fragile

Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expresses alarm at domestic human rights situation in Turkey

Efforts to ease tensions between Turkey and EU member states in the eastern Mediterranean remain fragile and need to be sustained, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said, before a European Council meeting this week that is likely to focus heavily on relations with Ankara.

Josep Borrell said there had been “some signals in the right direction” from the Turkish leadership since last December and “steps towards de-escalation” in the eastern Mediterranean.

He cited in particular the withdrawal of research vessels in contested waters, the toning down of rhetoric from Turkey and the expression by Turkish officials of an interest in a strong relationship with the EU.

“Still, the process of de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean remains fragile and de-escalation efforts need to be sustained,” Mr Borrell said after meeting EU foreign ministers.

“At the same time, the domestic situation in Turkey remains of serious concern,” he said.

Mr Borrell cited in particular the clamp down on the major Turkish opposition political party the HDP and Turkey’s withdrawal from an international treaty to counter violence against women, known as the Istanbul Convention.

“You will have seen the statements I issued on these matters, expressing our strong concern and condemnation and also the fear that these kind of measures are taking Turkey out of the European path.”

He said all options remained on the table if needed. Mr Borrell will meet Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Monday night.

Germany earlier on Monday accused Turkey of sending the wrong message to the EU in light of recent actions.

"The ban of the HDP and the pull-out of the Istanbul Convention are absolutely the wrong signals," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on arrival in Brussels.

Relations between Turkey – a candidate for membership of the EU – and the bloc are tense, after a series of disputes last year.

The EU backed member states Cyprus and Greece in a row over exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean and criticised President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he questioned the mental state of French President Emmanuel Macron.

"Regarding Turkey, there is light and shadow," Mr Maas said.

"We will have to discuss these mixed signals coming from Turkey today, and we will continue to aim for an ongoing dialogue – and we will use this dialogue to address issues where we believe Turkey is sending the wrong signals."

Last year, the EU placed sanctions on several Turkish organisations and individuals over drilling activities for natural gas in disputed waters.

But on Monday, no Turkish entities were included in new EU sanctions. These were imposed on individuals and entities from Myanmar, China, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan and Eritrea.

Mr Borrell is to present a report on the EU's relationship with Turkey at the European Council later this week.

It was discussed by the EU’s foreign ministers on Monday, with Greece’s Nikos Dendias broadly welcoming its contents.

“The report is positive in principle as it rightly approaches Turkey as a problem that concerns the whole of Europe and underlines the problems caused by Turkey’s behaviour,” he said on Monday morning.