The European Union’s top officials met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday, weeks after Erdogan took conciliatory steps and EU leaders agreed to increase trade and improve cooperation with Turkey on migration.
The visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel came after EU leaders agreed to offer Turkey new incentives despite ongoing concerns about the country’s backslide on democratic and human rights, and its energy ambitions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Among the issues the two and Erdogan were expected to discuss are Ankara’s demands for increased EU support for millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, an update of Turkey’s customs union with the EU and the liberalizing of visa rules for Turkish travelers.
Turkey is formally a candidate for EU membership, but its bid to join the 27-nation bloc has been at a standstill. Erdogan’s efforts at reconciliation followed a flare up of tensions last year over Turkey’s decision to stop deterring migrants from crossing its border into Greece, as well as over the dispatching of Turkish research ships into waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus.
EU leaders said last month that the bloc was ready “to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner to enhance cooperation in a number of areas of common interest.”
The leaders tasked the EU’s executive commission with trying to build on a 2016 agreement that calls for Turkey to prevent refugees and migrants from trying to reach Europe in exchange for refugee aid and other conditions. They also asked the European Commission to explore ways to continue to help finance the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as those in Jordan and Lebanon.
The EU-Turkey deal massively reduced the number of asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands, which lie close to Turkey’s western coast. Under the agreement, 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.
Michel and von der Leyen also were expected to raise concerns over democracy and human rights in Turkey.
A Turkish prosecutor recently moved to disband Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, and a prominent party legislator and human rights activist was stripped of his parliamentary seat and later imprisoned over a social media posting.
Erdogan also pulled Turkey out of a European convention aimed at combatting violence against women. The move was a blow to Turkey’s women’s rights movement, which says domestic violence and femicide are on the rise.
The leaders of EU nations are scheduled to assess progress on EU-Turkey ties again when they meet in June.