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Turkey has put its mind to improving the damaged relations with the European Union and introducing a positive agenda to the negotiations with the EU leaders: this is a deceptive impression that could have been produced on an outside observer by the recent steps of the Turkish leadership.
Indeed, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan himself participated in a video conference with the heads of the European Commission and Council of Europe Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel in the run-up to the EU summit scheduled for March 25-26.
The Turkish leader signalled that Ankara expects the European states to take specific measures in a bid to expand cooperation with Turkey. He also expressed hope for the prolongation of the refugee deal that obliges the EU to allocate billions of euros to Turkey in exchange for restriction of the migrants’ flow. The issue of temporarily displaced persons remains the key leverage tool in Erdogan’s hands which he skilfully wields to exert pressure on Europe.
Personal involvement of the Turkish president in the negotiations with the EU testifies to a considerable interest of the Turkish authorities in fence-mending. But this move is hardly dictated by a sincere endeavour to return on the rails of European integration. A more likely catalyst of the Erdogan’s initiative is his concern of additional sanctions against Turkey that can further deteriorate already struggling domestic economy.
Since the beginning of 2021 Ankara has been diligently working on sending a message about its readiness to change: Turkey halted the usual provocations in East Mediterranean and joined the process of peaceful settlement in Libya that started to yield promising fruits.
However, as in the case with Erdogan’s speech that prepared the ground of the EU summit, these steps can be taken seriously only by an outside observer. In fact, Turkey no longer needs to deliver additional arms to Libya only because a full-fledged Turkish military presence has been established in the North African country over last few years. Against this backdrop the reports on Ankara’s alleged intent to withdraw the Syrian mercenaries from Libya should be taken not with a grain of salt, but rather the whole barrel. The same goes for Turkish leadership’s praise to the political dialogue and the new government – a government that includes figures who do not even hide their loyalty to Turkey. All measures devised by the Turkish leadership pursue the single goal: to get to a vantage point in the run-up to the EU summit, there is no more to it.
Turkey made use of a relative calm to regroup its forces and strengthen its influence in the region. Turkish Daily Sabah newspaper recently reported about the expansion of the seaport in the coastal city of Zawiya expected to replace that of Tripoli for delivery of military hardware and munition. Apart from this, Ankara continues to entrench in Al-Watiya’s airfield, turning it into its military air base. Even the number of the Syrian mercenaries in Libya is not likely to decline: fighters of a Turkey-backed Sultan Suleyman Shah group are reportedly preparing to replace the ones who are supposed to leave the country.
Obviously, Erdogan hasn’t tossed his ambitions aside. He only feigns adherence to the European values to win support of the EU. By doing so, Erdogan pulls the wool over the eyes of Europeans, seeking to delay or altogether avoid punitive measures against Ankara. It is important to understand that under his leadership Turkey has always acted and will always act in its own interests with little regard for its European partners.
Alaeddin Saleh is a Libyan journalist with a long track record of studying and covering Libya and the MENA.