Turkey and the European Union will try again to revive their dormant relationship later this month in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna. Prospects for a positive outcome, however, appear slim as the issues clouding ties continue to mount.
As matters stand, the Varna summit that Ankara called for a year ago may not even be held because of the latest standoff between Turkey and EU member Cyprus over gas exploration rights. If it goes forward, the summit scheduled for March 26 will bring together Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, European Council President Donald Tusk, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian President Boyko Borissov in his capacity as EU term president.
Borissov is already pessimistic, telling reporters on Feb. 23 before an informal meeting of EU leaders in Brussels that the Varna meeting would be “a heavy experience … loaded with expectations and tensions.” He said he did not expect agreement on the questions raised there.
The latest Turkey-EU crisis erupted in mid-February, after Ankara sent warships to prevent a drillship contracted by the Greek Cypriot administration hired from the Italian oil company ENI from reaching a gas exploration well located southeast of Cyprus. Ankara does not recognize the exclusive economic zone the Greek Cypriot administration unilaterally declared in the region, saying that Turkish Cypriots have a stake too in the island’s natural resources, which can’t be exploited until the Cyprus problem is settled.
The EU is backing Cyprus against Turkey in the dispute. “These actions contradict Turkey’s commitments to good neighborly relations and their normalization with all member states,” Tusk said after the EU’s informal summit on Feb. 23. “We are ready to cooperate with Turkey and will assess at our March European Council whether the conditions are there to hold the leaders’ meeting with Turkey in Varna on 26 March,” he added.
Other issues clouding ties include the deterioration of democracy and human rights in Turkey and the imprisonment by Turkey of EU citizens — along with a large number of Turks — on terrorism charges, which the European side says are trumped up.
Despite Tusk’s warning, diplomatic sources contacted by Al-Monitor believe that the Varna summit will go ahead because both sides need to maintain dialogue on crucial issues. The most prominent of them is preventing the uncontrolled flow of refugees and migrants from the East to Europe, combating terrorism, securing energy routes, maintaining vast economic interests and ultimately retaining NATO member Turkey as a bulwark against regional uncertainties.
Efforts by Turkey and Germany to overcome a year of highly strained ties, capped with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s recent visit to Berlin for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, also reflect a recognition of the need to maintain dialogue between Ankara and European capitals. Turkey, however, wants this dialogue to be based on the core issue of its EU membership bid, which it says is vital for Europe too.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made this perspective clear in an article for The Telegraph last week. “Let us set our optics right: Without Turkey, Europe will be left exposed and vulnerable,” Cavusoglu maintained. He said the sides should prepare their populations “for the positive eventuality of Turkish membership rather than caving in to extremists that threaten to redefine the political center in too many European countries.”
He was clearly referring to European politicians who claim that predominantly Islamic Turkey has no place in Europe. Cavusoglu went on to underline one of Ankara’s key expectations from the EU, saying a visa liberalization regime for Turks would be a step forward. Turks were offered the option of visa-free travel to Europe in the migration deal agreed on between Ankara and the EU in March 2016, provided Turkey met 72 criteria.
Ankara says it has met the bulk of them, but refuses to change its terrorism law in line with the EU’s demand. The EU wants Turkey to exclude acts from its current law that in Europe fall under freedom of speech.
Turkey’s current terrorism law has been used to incarcerate thousands of people — including EU citizens — since the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016 and the flareup in Ankara’s ongoing war with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Ankara says complying with the EU’s demand would weaken its hand against terrorism, and has turned the visa liberalization issue into a litmus test of European sincerity. The outlook for Turkey getting what it wants, however, is poor under the prevailing conditions.
Meanwhile, the terror question has also become a divisive issue between Turkey and the EU, even though the sides continue to cooperate against Islamic terrorism. Europe’s lenient approach to PKK supporters and the objections it is raising to Turkey’s operation in Syria against the People's Protection Units — which Ankara says is an extension of the PKK — are seen in Ankara as European support for Kurdish terrorism. Many Turks believe that the EU is using the visa issue against Turkey to ensure that PKK supporters and members the group Ankara accuses of being behind the coup attempt escape punishment.
Most Turks today also believe that the EU was never sincere about granting Turkey membership, even if Ankara had enacted all the required reforms.
The Sharq Forum's Galip Dalay, who is also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, underlined that Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party enacted major reforms during 2002-2007, which were rewarded by the EU with the start of membership talks in 2005.
“But joy for a new phase in relations soon fizzled out after German Chancellor Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power,” Dalay argued in a Feb. 15 article for the German Marshall Fund. Instead of focusing on the objective criteria Turkey had still to fulfill for membership, both Merkel and Sarkozy “rejected the prospect of Turkey’s EU membership from an identity-centric perspective,” Dalay stated.
The “Merkozy approach,” as it came to be known, offered Ankara “a special partnership” instead of full membership to keep Turkey “anchored in Europe” for the sake of pragmatic considerations.
Ankara rejected this idea from the start, but the Merkozy argument is gaining traction again in Europe as Turkey’s democracy deteriorates and Europe becomes increasingly inward-looking.
French President Emmanuel Macron made this shift evident after meeting Erdogan in Paris in January. "We should … see if we cannot rethink this relationship, not in the framework of the [EU] integration process, but perhaps a cooperation, a partnership," Macron told reporters after his talks with Erdogan. He added that the main goal must be to keep NATO member Turkey "anchored" in Europe.
Retired senior Turkish diplomat Unal Cevikoz, who is a member of the main opposition Republican People's Party’s parliamentary assembly, does not expect much to come out of Varna. “It will provide an opportunity for some nice photographs, which Erdogan, Tusk and Juncker need to show that dialogue has not been severed,” Cevikoz told Al-Monitor. He also believes that the question of Turkey’s membership bid has effectively dropped from the agenda due to the political situation in Turkey.
“Tusk and Juncker may, however, bring up the issue of a new arrangement between Turkey and the EU that does not entail membership but keeps Turkey tethered to Europe,” Cevikoz said.
As to whether the Varna summit will be canceled over the Cyprus issue, Cevikoz said this would mean a serious breakup between Turkey and the EU that he believes neither side wants.