President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press conference following an International Donors Conference for Turkey and Syria after the earthquake that hit the two countries, at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 20, 2023 (Photo John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

EU Raises $7.5 billion for Turkey, Syria Earthquake Victims

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By Nazlan Ertan

IZMIR, Turkey (al-Monitor.com) — The International Donors’ Conference in Brussels pledged on Monday nearly $7.5 billion for reconstruction for the earthquake victims in Syria and Turkey, as the death toll reached more than 50,000 in Turkey alone.

Swedish Premier Ulf Kristersson, whose country holds the rotating term presidency of the European Union, said today that the fundraiser has “reached its goal” by providing €6.05 billion ($6.48 billion) in grants and loans for Turkey and €950 million ($1.018 billion) in grants for Syria.

One billion of the aid alone comes directly from the European Commission, pledged by EC President Ursula von der Leyen as she kicked off the EU-sponsored event in Brussels. “I am pleased to announce that the European Commission alone will support Turkey with 1 billion euros ($1.072 billion) for the post-earthquake reconstruction. We also pledge a further package of 108 million euros ($115.7 million) for humanitarian assistance and early recovery in Syria,” von der Leyen told participants that included EU member states, UN institutions, international financing bodies, India, Japan, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Six hours later, von der Leyen announced that “Team Europe” — meaning the EC, the European Investment Bank, and the European Reconstruction and Development Bank — had raised 3.6 billion euros ($3.8 billion), half of the total donations. The total sum includes grants, loans or, in the case of Hungary, funding the renovations of a specific church. EU member Cyprus, which is not recognized by Turkey, also attended the conference and pledged 500,000 euros ($533,200) to Turkey and Syria.

Kristersson signaled that Sweden will commit 45 million euros ($48 million) to rehabilitate and reconstruct the two quake-devastated countries. Sweden’s entry to NATO is still blocked by Ankara on the grounds that Stockholm failed to fulfill its promises to address Turkey’s security needs. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his government will send the application of Sweden’s neighbor Finland for ratification to Parliament before the country’s dual elections scheduled for May 14. Asked about Sweden’s NATO membership at the final presser, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Ankara was waiting for concrete steps from Sweden such as preventing the fundraising, recruitment and propaganda activities of groups that Turkey considers terrorists.

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In the presser, Cavusoglu thanked the EU — and the Swedish presidency — for showing solidarity with Turkey and helping with the country’s reconstruction. “Turkey has submitted a detailed report on the recovery and rehabilitation assessment to the donors, as well as a detailed plan of our priorities,” he added.

Erdogan, who sent a video message to the conference, also expressed rare praise toward the EU for the conference.“This shows the strength of the bonds between our peoples,” he said, pledging that Turkey would continue to facilitate the land and air transfer of humanitarian aid materials to the quake victims in Syria.

The Turkish president put the economic toll of the earthquake at about $104 billion, echoing the need assessments made by the UN Development Fund (UNDP) and the World Bank, which has reassessed its earlier assessment of $34.2 billion.

A report prepared by the Turkish Presidency’s Strategy and Budget Office, with input from the World Bank, the UNDP and the EU, maintained that the economic toll of the quake amounted to 9% of Turkey’s forecast GDP for 2023. “This is a shocking amount, reflecting the almost unfathomable scope of the devastation experienced by Turkey’s southern provinces. The path to recovery will be challenging and, even given the government’s dedication of enormous state resources, will depend in part on support from the international community,” the report said, citing the construction of both homes and infrastructure as priorities and explaining that the exodus from the region could not be reversed without them.

“Apartment towers and village houses lie in ruins across a vast territory of 110,000 square km,” says the 220-page report, referring to an area corresponding to one-seventh of Turkey or, as Sweden’s prime minister pointed out, the land of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. In addition, 3.3 million people have been displaced while about 2 million live in tents and containers.

Erdogan, facing one of the toughest challenges in his 20-year-rule in the upcoming elections, appears determined to bolster his tarnished image with promises of “rebuilding Turkey” and hopes donors’ funds will help him do so. His message to the conference underlined his reconstruction plans. “We are planning to deliver to our people a total of 650,000 houses — 319,000 of them within the first year. We have immediately broken ground and started the construction works in the areas where the location detection and land survey phases have been completed,” he said.

However, Erdogan’s pledges for “immediate groundbreakings” are alarming to international donors, particularly those within the EU. Without the new laws, controls and watchdog institutions strengthened, the new construction may lead to a new disaster, said a European diplomat familiar with the disaster zone. “That is why some of the speakers underlined the need for accountability and transparency while repeating over and over the need for building better, seismic-resilient structures,” said the diplomat who asked for anonymity.

Most of the donations are unlikely to come before the May 14 elections, said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies and a former diplomat. “Turkey and the European Union — which has organized the donor’s conference — will draw the framework on the conditions and the transparency criteria for spending the aid, and the bulk of the funds is likely to be backloaded rather than frontloaded,” he told Al-Monitor.

Both the urgency with which the EU member states rushed to Turkey’s aid and the donor conference have softened the rhetoric between Turkey and the members of the EU, Ulgen said. “The assistance of the EU, its members and other countries of the global community made it very difficult to advance a rhetoric on the victimization of Turkey or create an external crisis to fuel nationalist sentiment as we head to elections.”

At the final conference, Cavusoglu said he hoped that the solidarity shown to Turkey by the EU would continue in other areas, but he did not make a specific reference to EU-Turkey membership negotiations that have been at a standstill or to the modernization of the customs union that has been shelved.

Cavusoglu met with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias, on the sidelines of the meeting where the two agreed to support each other’s candidacy to international institutions in a new signal of warming relations. Turkey will support and vote for Greece’s bid for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in 2025-26, while Greece will back up Turkey’s bid for the general secretariat of the International Maritime Organization, Dendias said after the meeting.

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