Ankara gears up for pivotal EU visit as relations hang in the balance

Ankara gears up for pivotal EU visit as relations hang in the balance
A crucial rendezvous is set to unfold in Ankara on Sept. 6-7, with European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Verhelyi making his way to the Turkish capital to engage in discussions spanning bilateral relations and potential avenues for cooperation. (X/@OliverVarhelyi)
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Updated 05 September 2023
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Ankara gears up for pivotal EU visit as relations hang in the balance

Ankara gears up for pivotal EU visit as relations hang in the balance
  • The historic visit marks the first official visit by an EU representative to Turkiye since the May presidential elections
  • The EU is poised to unveil its forthcoming progress report on Turkiye and a fresh enlargement report in October

ANKARA: A crucial rendezvous is set to unfold in Ankara on Sept. 6-7, with European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Verhelyi making his way to the Turkish capital to engage in discussions spanning bilateral relations and potential avenues for cooperation.
The historic visit marks the first official visit by an EU representative to Turkiye since the May presidential elections.
Varhelyi’s itinerary includes meetings with prominent Turkish officials, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Hakan Fidan; Minister of Trade Omer Bolat; Minister of Family and Social Services Mahinur Ozdemir Goktas; Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Alparslan Bayraktar; and Minister of Industry and Technology Mehmet Fatih Kacir.
The EU is poised to unveil its forthcoming progress report on Turkiye and a fresh enlargement report in October.
On Sept. 1, the European Commission officially inked an association agreement with Turkiye, granting access to the €7.5 billion ($8 billion) Digital Europe Programme slated for the period spanning 2021-2027. Once the agreement is ratified, Turkish enterprises, public administrations and eligible organizations will be empowered to take part in digital technology projects. Turkiye is also expected to establish Digital Innovation Hubs across the nation as part of the scheme.
In the wake of the devastating earthquakes in the country this February, the European Commission proposed a financial lifeline of €400 million from the European Union Solidarity Fund to provide much-needed assistance.
Furthermore, during his visit, Varhelyi is set to finalize a €781 million contract, allocating EU funds to support refugees in Turkiye, thereby fulfilling a prior commitment of €3 billion in funding to continue aiding refugees in the country.
Cigdem Nas, a prominent expert on EU-Turkiye relations and secretary-general of the Istanbul-based Economic Development Foundation of Turkiye, said a critical stage in Turkiye-EU relations has already come.
“Despite being a candidate, Turkiye is no longer considered as a country with membership perspective. Turkiye was not invited to the recent summit with candidate countries in Athens. The European Council has tasked the commission and high representative to write a report on the future of the relations. Mr. Sanchez Amor, the European Parliament rapporteur for Turkiye, also recommended a new kind of relationship replacing the accession process,” she told Arab News.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently called for a revival of the accession process, Nas thinks that such a move appears increasingly challenging.
“In a paradoxical twist, while Ukraine’s candidacy has generated an unprecedented enlargement perspective toward the Eurasia region, it has also made Turkiye’s membership prospects more improbable due to the EU’s limited integration capacity,” she said.
On July 10, Erdogan unexpectedly called for a reopening of Turkiye’s accession talks, linking it with Turkiye’s greenlight to Sweden’s stalled bid to join NATO.
However, experts have said that the Turkish government’s decades-long backsliding in domestic reforms, especially in rule of law, press freedom and democracy, compounds the complexity of the accession process.
Accession talks have stalled since 2016 over the EU’s concerns about human rights violations and respect for rule of law in the country.
“Given Turkiye’s strategic importance to the EU, its growing geopolitical significance in light of the conflict in Ukraine and Russian aggression, the enhanced cooperation is preferred and it encouraged rapprochement in areas such as security, energy, migration and supply chains,” Nas said.
However, analysts agree that the renewed rapprochement between the EU and Turkiye is unlikely to result in full membership for Ankara, but will instead herald a new form of partnership.
“Given that Turkiye already enjoys associate status with the EU under the Ankara Agreement, which commemorates its 60th anniversary this year, any fresh model for these relations must be rooted in the existing legal framework and must integrate current policy priorities, such as the green and digital agendas,” Nas affirmed.
Nonetheless, political roadblocks and disputes, such as the Cyprus issue, could yet present formidable obstacles to the future of relations.
“In such a scenario, a transactional and issue-based, sporadic relationship may materialize instead of a comprehensive, neatly packaged arrangement,” Nas said.
Meanwhile, Turkiye’s geopolitical influence has experienced a notable surge, especially following its role as a middleman in persuading Russia to re-enter the grain deal.
Samuel Doveri Vesterbye, managing director of the European Neighborhood Council in Brussels, said that this week’s visit to Turkiye by Varhelyi is “very important” because it comes at the same time as the EP and EU’s Foreign Ministry report about EU-Turkiye relations is handed to the European Council.
“We expect this report to be submitted between Sept. 17 and 25, and it is likely to include views about a new strategic partnership with Turkiye,” he told Arab News.
Vesterbye added that the numerous visits by high-level commissioners to Turkiye is a strong sign that negotiations have started.
Dialogue about a future EU-Turkiye relationship based on institutional ties, economic interdependence, trade, investment, migration, security, connectivity, digital policies, energy, visa liberalization, disaster management and reforms are high on the agenda, he added.
“There are still many challenges, including the Cyprus question and how a renewed customs union is possible without settling the age-old question of trade to and from the island, as well as issues linked to uncompetitive, illegal state-funding practices by the Turkish government and questions regarding labor laws, media and juridical independence,” he said.
But, for Vesterbye, an essential component is Turkiye’s capability to uphold environmental and labor standards.
This will allow EU companies to continue operating in Turkiye, and provide a legally risk-free environment for existing and new EU-Turkish supply chains in the country, as well as encourage the creation of new trade routes though Turkiye and into the Caucasus and Central Asia.
“For the EU to pursue a deeper strategic relationship with Turkiye, there also has to be genuine and verifiable proof of goodwill from the Turkish side on these topics,” he said.
However, experts remain cautious about the next phase of rapprochement.
“Forced migration and conflict across Eurasia is a serious problem for both the EU and Turkiye, and the only way to solve this is by increasing EU-Turkiye cooperation in security sectors in the future. Between 2007 and 2022, the EU and Turkiye have de-aligned in common foreign and security policy from 97 percent alignment to only 7 percent.
“This poses a huge risk for both the EU and Turkiye, since both are tied together in terms of energy, trade and supply chains among many other areas, like migration and environmental policies,” said Vesterbye.
He added that the new EU report on Turkiye could help launch more dialogue and negotiations in order to find better ways to cement a new post-accession partnership based on a common strategic vision.
“The alternative could be devastating, since economic decoupling between the EU and Turkiye will have detrimental effects on both economies and security,” Vesterbye said.
A day before Varhelyi’s visit, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met his Greek counterpart, George Gerapetritis, marking the latter’s inaugural ministerial visit to Turkiye.
“We are now in a new and positive stage in our relations with our neighbor and ally, Greece. Revitalization of high-level contacts and dialogue channels are positive developments. Today, we confirmed our mutual will to sustain this momentum,” Fidan said on X (formerly Twitter).
During their meeting, discussions spanned cooperation in areas including trade, the economy and tourism, as well as strategies to combat illegal migration and terrorism.
“We believe we can overcome our differences with the spirit of good neighborliness and through constructive dialogue,” Fidan said.
Vesterbye said that the meeting between Fidan and his Greek counterpart demonstrates “real interest” between the two countries in easing tensions.
He added: “About the grain deal — it is clear that Turkiye is playing its hand well. It has an important role in Africa, and Russia is now directly blamed for impeding access to food on the continent for millions of people. The EU and Turkiye have a real role to play in Africa since the continent’s well-being and growth equals better security, safety and trade for the EU.”


Iranians vote in elections as conservatives expected to dominate

Iranians vote in elections as conservatives expected to dominate
Updated 17 sec ago
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Iranians vote in elections as conservatives expected to dominate

Iranians vote in elections as conservatives expected to dominate
  • Iran has also been badly affected by international sanctions that have led to an economic crisis
  • Fearing escalation, Iraq asked Iran to help rein in groups

TEHRAN: Iranians voted on Friday in elections for parliament and a key clerical body, amid fears of a low turnout and with conservatives expected to tighten their grip on power.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has called for a strong turnout, was the first to cast his ballot. He vote at a polling station in central Tehran, state television reported.
The elections are the first in Iran since widespread protests erupted after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, following her arrest for an alleged breach of the country’s strict dress code for women.
Since the last elections, Iran has also been badly affected by international sanctions that have led to an economic crisis.
More than 61 million of Iran’s 85 million people are eligible to vote for members of parliament as well as the clerics of the Assembly of Experts, which selects Iran’s supreme leader.
There were fears of a low turnout, however, after a state TV poll found more than half of respondents were indifferent about the elections.
“Suppose that I vote: what would it change?” asked a 21-year-old from Kurdistan province who gave her name only as Hanna, for fear of reprisals. “They (the elected officials) do not respect their promises.”
Her comments were echoed by Hashem, a 32-year-old from the southwestern province of Khuzestan. “The problem with the elections is that people are not happy with this system because of the political and economic situation,” he said.
Another voter, Moradiani from south Tehran, said she would heed Khamenei’s call to vote.
“The leader said that participating in the elections is an obligation,” she said, “just as it is obligatory for us to pray.”
Polls closed at midnight (2030 GMT), after voting hours were extended several times during the day, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Local Fars news agency estimated the turnout to stand at “more than 40 percent.”
“The plan to boycott the elections, designed by foreign enemies and their internal supporters, failed with the participation of around 25 million people,” it said, without elaborating

Iran’s last parliamentary election in 2020 saw turnout of 42.57 percent — the lowest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Hadi Tahan Nazif, spokesman for the Guardian Council which vets candidates, voiced optimism about Friday’s turnout, saying it was “even better” than four years ago.
Khamenei had on Friday appealed for people to vote, saying: “Onlookers from all over observe the affairs of our country; make (Iran’s) friends happy and ill-wishers disappointed.”
The supreme leader had previously warned that Iran’s “enemies want to see if the people are present.” Otherwise, he added, “they will threaten your security in one way or another.”
Those watching, he said, included the United States, “most of the Europeans, evil Zionists, capitalists and big companies.”
Iran considers the United States, its Western allies and Israel “enemies” of the state and accuses them of seeking to intervene in its internal affairs.
On the eve of the elections, the United States said they would be unfair.
“I have no expectation that Iran’s elections will be free and fair, and I suspect that a great number of Iranians have no expectation that those elections will be free and fair,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington.
Candidates for parliament are vetted by the Guardian Council, whose members are either appointed or approved by the supreme leader.
They have approved a total of 15,200 candidates, out of nearly 49,000 applicants, to run for seats in the 290-member parliament.
Conservatives and ultra-conservatives, who hold 232 out 290 seats in the 2020 parliament after reformist and moderate candidates were disqualified, are expected by analysts to dominate once again.
A coalition of parties called the Reform Front said it would not take part in “meaningless, non-competitive and ineffective elections.”

Former Iranian president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, was quoted in February by the conservative Javan daily as saying that Iran was “very far from free and competitive elections.”
Conservatives are also expected to maintain a firm grip on the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member body exclusively made up of male Islamic scholars.
A total of 144 candidates are running but many hopefuls were disqualified, including moderate former president Hassan Rouhani.
The Israel-Hamas war has sent tensions in the region soaring, with pro-Tehran groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen all involved in clashes with either Israel or its Western allies.
The elections also take place amid crippling international sanctions and mounting economic hardship in Iran, where inflation has hovered around 50 percent and the rial has sharply depreciated against the dollar.
“The prices are extremely high and continue to increase,” Masoumeh, a 40-year-old housewife, told AFP in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar ahead of the vote.
“I don’t think that the representatives who will be elected will be able to improve this situation.”
 


Biden says ‘hoping’ for Gaza ceasefire deal by Ramadan

Biden says ‘hoping’ for Gaza ceasefire deal by Ramadan
Updated 10 min 42 sec ago
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Biden says ‘hoping’ for Gaza ceasefire deal by Ramadan

Biden says ‘hoping’ for Gaza ceasefire deal by Ramadan
  • Biden had said at the beginning of this week that he expected a deal by Monday for a six-week halt in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, but has steadily walked back the timeline

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden said Friday he was “hoping” for a ceasefire deal in the Israel-Hamas conflict by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan but agreement was still not sealed.
“I’m hoping so, we’re still working real hard on it. We’re not there yet,” he told reporters at the White House when asked if he expected a deal by Ramadan, which will start on March 10 or 11, depending on the lunar calendar.
“We’ll get there but we’re not there yet — we may not get there,” Biden added, without elaborating, as he headed to his helicopter to spend the weekend at the presidential Camp David retreat.
Biden had said at the beginning of this week that he expected a deal by Monday for a six-week halt in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, but has steadily walked back the timeline.
The 81-year-old Democrat announced earlier Friday that the United States would soon start airdropping aid to Gaza, a day after dozens of desperate Palestinians were killed rushing an aid convoy.
Biden has said the incident could complicate talks, but would not comment Friday on what was holding up a deal, adding: “I’m not going to tell you that because that’ll get involved in the negotiations.”

 


Tunisian judge releases union leader after one-day detention

Tunisian judge releases union leader after one-day detention
Updated 02 March 2024
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Tunisian judge releases union leader after one-day detention

Tunisian judge releases union leader after one-day detention
  • The UGTT, which has about 1 million members, has been a critical voice after the arrest of activists, businessmen, and journalists since President Kais Saied took charge of most powers in 2021 when he closed parliament

TUNIS: A judge has released a top official in Tunisia’s biggest labor union, one day after he was detained, the union said.
The Tunisian General Labor Union denounced the detention of Tahar Mezzi, saying it was a politically motivated attempt to undermine union rights.
Mezzi is the deputy secretary-general and the union’s head of the private sector.
He was detained two days before a huge protest called by the UGTT against what it said was a “violation of union rights and the disruption of social dialogue.”
A judicial official said the judge also ordered a travel ban on Mezzi.
The UGTT did not say on what grounds Mezzi was detained.
Tunisian authorities were not immediately available for comment.
Since last year, police have arrested at least four senior union officials.
The UGTT, which has about 1 million members, has been a critical voice after the arrest of activists, businessmen, and journalists since President  Kais Saied took charge of most powers in 2021 when he closed parliament.
But the voice of the union, which was widely seen as the biggest force in the country, has been significantly diminished since last year after the arrest of some officials.
Some political parties and activists have accused UGTT of inaction, retreating from its role, and choosing silence instead of confronting Saied’s authoritarian approach.
Saturday’s protest will be the first in months.

 


How Middle East and North African countries can rise to the climate challenge

How Middle East and North African countries can rise to the climate challenge
Updated 24 min 45 sec ago
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How Middle East and North African countries can rise to the climate challenge

How Middle East and North African countries can rise to the climate challenge
  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE leveraging renewables and environmental policies to protect future growth and prosperity
  • Without action now, parts of the MENA region could be uninhabitable by 2050 owing to extreme temperatures and water scarcity

RIYADH/DUBAI: The Middle East and North Africa region is at a crossroads. As temperatures rise, water scarcity intensifies and desertification spreads, the region’s immense economic potential is at risk unless bold action is taken.

Fortunately, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have been taking steps to adopt sources of renewable energy, not only to meet their own commitments to slashing carbon emissions, but to take a lead in the global energy transition.

The Sakaka Solar Plant project in Saudi Arabia's northern province of Jouf, spread over an area of 6 square kilometers, generates 940,000MWh electricity and supplies enough clean energy to power 75,000 households. (SPA)

This adoption of renewables has come hand in hand with a broader regional push to diversify economies away from oil, invest in carbon capture, storage and utilization, and roll out policies designed to protect natural habitats and expand green spaces.

There is a lot at stake for the MENA region, which is viewed as being uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Indeed, several studies suggest parts of the region could be uninhabitable by 2050 owing to extreme temperatures and water scarcity.

In November and December last year, Dubai hosted the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, at which states agreed to a historic set of measures to stop average global temperatures rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

People walk outside Expo City in Dubai on December 12, 2023 during the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28. (AFP)

The agreement called for a “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner ... so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

It also called for the creation of a fund to help vulnerable countries pay for climate-related damage, and the publication of landmark assessments on the world’s progress in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Furthermore, it called for a tripling of renewable energy capacity worldwide by 2030, the speeding up of efforts to reduce coal use, and the adoption of technologies for carbon capture, storage and utilization.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Although not all nations were satisfied with the text of the deal, it did mark an important step forward, building on the ambitions laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Speaking at the Paris headquarters of the International Energy Agency on Feb. 20, COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber said that meeting the goals agreed under the “UAE Consensus” would require “unprecedented action” by global stakeholders.

“Solidarity overcame polarization, inclusivity prevailed over finger-pointing and the spirit of partnership brought the best of humanity together,” he said of the COP28 summit.

“To keep this spirit alive and build on the momentum achieved at COP28, the UAE Consensus set a new direction and a clear course correction. We must now turn an unprecedented agreement into unprecedented action. Now is the time for all stakeholders to step up.”

COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber is seen on a screen as he speaks during a high-level round table on COP energy and climate commitments organized by the International Energy Agency at its headquarters in Paris on February 20, 2024. (AFP)

While many Western nations appear to be rolling back their climate commitments, the Middle East and North Africa region has risen to the challenge.

One bold example of this is the Saudi Green Initiative, launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2021 to protect the Kingdom’s environment, conserve wildlife, and plant billions of trees, while enabling sustainable economic growth.

 

 

“Since its inception, SGI has implemented a range of initiatives to protect and conserve the Kingdom’s vital ecosystems,” Osama Ibrahim Faqeeha, deputy minister of environment, water and agriculture, told Arab News.

Osama Ibrahim Faqeeha

“For example, the National Greening Program, which is driving nationwide tree-planting efforts across Saudi Arabia and is underpinned by two key guiding principles: firstly, maintaining ecosystem balance, and secondly, utilizing renewable water resources.

“The program follows a nature-based regeneration approach to allow its ecosystems to flourish over time.”

Faqeeha said several dedicated initiatives under the SGI are being actioned to protect biodiversity hotspots through the designation of protected areas.

“SGI also aims to promote sustainability by raising awareness and reducing the adverse impact of economic sectors on the ecosystems, driving all these efforts by engaging all relevant stakeholders from the public, private, and third sectors,” he said.

Saudi Arabia's National Greening Program has been in full swing since 2021. (SPA)

Other significant steps the Kingdom has taken to safeguard biodiversity include the establishment of a dedicated national environmental framework, underpinned by the National Environment Law.

Several agencies have been established to carry out this work, including the National Center for Wildlife, National Center for Vegetation Cover, National Center for Environmental Compliance, and the National Center for Waste Management.

Under his ministry’s oversight, Faqeeha said these agencies “regulate and monitor critical environmental domains linked to biodiversity conservation, such as terrestrial, marine, and coastal ecosystems, land and vegetation cover, environmental media, waste management, (and) underscore the commitment to biodiversity conservation in the Kingdom.”

The picture is similar in the UAE. Under the General Environment Policy of 2021, authorities are working to preserve ecosystems, promote diversification and economic prosperity, integrate climate change and biodiversity considerations into various sectors, and support the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

Keeping its marine waters constantly clean is part the UAE's sustainability goals. (Supplied)

All these plans are crucial if countries in the Middle East and North Africa region hope to address the effects of climate change, which are already impacting precipitation patterns, causing water scarcity and harming agriculture, thereby threatening livelihoods and food security.

In the Gulf states, in particular, climate change is already contributing to an increase in the salinity of groundwater. According to a report by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Gulf water supplies will come under additional strain over the next 20 years due to the region’s booming population and the scarcity of rainfall.

Officials in these countries believe it is therefore critical to plan now in order to mitigate and adapt to these challenges if they are to protect future growth and prosperity.

 


Shoukry: Egypt hopeful of Gaza ceasefire deal before Ramadan

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, attends the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Antalya, Turkey, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP)
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, attends the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Antalya, Turkey, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP)
Updated 02 March 2024
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Shoukry: Egypt hopeful of Gaza ceasefire deal before Ramadan

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, attends the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Antalya, Turkey, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP)
  • Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki, speaking at the same panel with Shoukry, said Israel would not announce a ceasefire unless international pressure is imposed on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government

ANTALYA: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Friday said Cairo was hopeful that talks could agree on a ceasefire in Gaza before the start of Ramadan.
Gaza truce talks have been taking place in Paris since last week in what appears to be the most serious push for weeks to halt the fighting in the Palestinian enclave between Israeli forces and Hamas and to secure the release of Israeli and foreign hostages.
“I can say that we have reached a point of understanding. We will still exert every effort with our brothers in Qatar, the US, and others close to the negotiations. We are hopeful that we can reach a cessation of hostilities and exchange of hostages,” Minister Sameh Shoukry said at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Turkiye.
“Everyone recognizes that we have a time limit to be successful before the start of Ramadan,” he said.
A proposed deal from the start of Ramadan on March 10 and 11 includes a 40-day pause in all military operations and the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages at a ratio of 10 to one, a senior source close to the talks told Reuters on Tuesday.
“We will continue to strive in collaboration with the United Nations, with our partners to relieve the suffering of the Gazan people and to increase the level (of aid). This cannot happen practically without the cessation of hostilities,” Shoukry said.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki, speaking at the same panel with Shoukry, said Israel would not announce a ceasefire unless international pressure is imposed on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
“If we are not able to reach a ceasefire in the next two or three weeks, is clear we will see another round of attacks on Rafah and the continuation of a genocide,” he said.
Also on Friday, Abu Ubaida, the spokesperson for Al-Qassam brigades, said seven hostages who had been held in Gaza were killed as a result of Israeli bombardment.
It was not immediately clear when the seven died.
The Al-Qassam brigades confirmed that the number of hostages killed due to Israel’s military operations in Gaza has now exceeded 70 captives, Abu Ubaida added in a statement on Telegram.