The latest high-level attempt to normalize Turkish-EU ties has failed. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s much publicized meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in the Bulgarian seaside resort of Varna on March 26, did not produce any results on issues that have been clouding ties.
There was no indication that fresh life would be breathed into Turkey’s bid for EU membership. All Turkey obtained was an assurance that its dormant bid remained on the table and that dialogue between Turkey and the EU would continue, even though there is little chance that stalled negotiations will resume anytime soon.
Bulgarian President Boyko Borissov, who hosted the summit because his country holds the EU’s term presidency, had already set the tone before the leaders gathered in Varna when he told reporters that this would be a difficult meeting.
With such statements hovering in the air, expectations that any breakthrough could be achieved at Varna were already minimal.
Otherwise, and in a repeat of the last meeting between the three leaders in May 2017, this summit turned out once more to be an occasion where the sides merely listed their grievances and demands from each other.
Turkey’s long list of grievances includes what it says is the support that followers of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the so-called Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO), a term Ankara uses to refer to Gulen followers, enjoy in Europe. Turkey has accused FETO of masterminding the coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016.
Ankara also wants more EU money to cope with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. It complains that only 1.8 billion euros ($2.2 billion) of the promised 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) agreed on in 2016 has arrived, and even that belatedly and begrudgingly.
Ankara also wants the EU to honor its promise of visa liberalization for Turks, as well as a major revamping of the 1995 Turkey-EU Customs Union agreement. It argues that these technical matters are being delayed by the EU for political reasons.
The EU refuses to grant visa-free travel for Turks until Ankara narrows the scope of its definition of terrorism. Thousands are in prison in Turkey today charged with membership to the PKK or FETO under the current terrorism law, which human rights groups say is open to abuse.
The Cyprus problem has also re-emerged to haunt Turkish-EU ties. The latest standoff follows the decision by the Greek Cypriot government to resume exploration for hydrocarbons around the island. However, Ankara refuses to accept Cyprus’ sovereignty over the whole island.
Turkey has prevented the exploration by sending naval vessels to the region. It argues that this unilateral exploration by the Greek Cypriot administration encroaches on Turkey’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the rights of the Turkish Cypriot government in the north of the island.
The EU, however, has thrown its weight behind EU member Cyprus again and issued strong condemnation of Turkey only days before the Varna summit.
Meanwhile, criticism of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, prior to the summit, by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also angered Ankara.
During the joint press conference following the Varna talks, Erdogan reiterated Ankara’s expectations on all these points, showing little inclination to submit to EU demands on any of them.
He also underlined that it would be a serious mistake for the EU to exclude Turkey from its expansion policy, given that Europe was seeking to be a global power.
Trying, nevertheless, to strike a positive note, Erdogan said they had taken the first step at Varna for restoring mutual confidence. He did not clarify what this assessment was based on. He also expressed his hope that “they were leaving behind a difficult period in Turkey-EU relations.”
Erdogan nevertheless acknowledged that concrete steps had yet to be taken for this to come about.
During the press conference, Tusk’s assessment of the Varna talks was bleaker. “We didn’t achieve any kind of concrete compromise today,” he said, referring to the EU’s demands from Turkey.
The EU demands include the improvement of Turkey’s democratic standards and the enactment of reforms on freedoms and the rule of law, which have been eroded under the state of emergency declared following the failed coup in 2016.
The EU also wants Turkey to climb down on its dispute with Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea and with Greece over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea as well as release two Greek soldiers who were arrested after crossing the Greek border into Turkey and who are currently facing spying charges.
“I raised all of our concerns. It was a long list, including the rule of law and press freedom, bilateral relations with member states and the situation in Syria,” Tusk said. “Only progress on these issues will allow us to improve EU-Turkey relations, including the accession process,” he added.
The Turkish media underreported Tusk’s remarks, preferring instead to concentrate more on mollifying comments by Juncker during the press conference.
Juncker’s remark that he was the “guarantor” of Turkey’s EU bid and his characterization of calls in Europe for ending membership talks with Ankara as “simplistic and artificial” got wide coverage.
Juncker added that they wanted to maintain the strategic partnership with Turkey for the sake of a host of security concerns, including that of uncontrolled migration to Europe.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim reflected the mood in Ankara regarding the Varna talks. He said the EU had again displayed its unfair attitude toward Turkey.
“I did not see any indication that the EU is prepared to base its approach to Turkey on a just foundation,” Yildirim said.
Despite his dour remarks about the Varna talks, Tusk underlined that they had agreed to maintain dialogue between the EU and Turkey. Tusk and Juncker also agreed that the 2016 migration agreement between Turkey and the EU had dramatically reduced the flow of irregular migration to Europe.
The fear of being flooded with migrants and refugees from the east continues to be a prime consideration, though not the only one, ensuring the EU’s desire to keep talking to Turkey, despite existing problems.
Kemal Kirisci from the influential Turkish Industry and Business Association pointed out that Turkey and the EU are also more dependent on each other economically than many are aware.
“Half of Turkish exports go to EU countries,” Kirisci wrote in an article for The Brookings Institution. He added that “Turkey is the EU’s 5th-largest trading partner after the United States, China, Switzerland, and Russia, and ahead of Norway, Japan, and South Korea.”
But even Kirisci does not expect a breakthrough in ties under current conditions.
“Ultimately, the greatest challenge to reviving healthy EU-Turkish relations remains the dire state of Turkish democracy and rule of law,” he wrote.
It is only with improvements in these areas, he argued, “that the interdependence between the sides could help constitute the basis for rebuilding relations.”
Hurriyet columnist Taha Akyol believes that Turkey, with its economy, political administration and judiciary should be a European country.
“If Ankara returns to the universal standards of democracy and law … then some of its problems [with the EU] will disappear. Turkey’s economy will be relieved and it will strengthen its hand against terrorism, and in diplomacy,” Akyol wrote.
With Ankara going in the opposite direction, though, such views appear no more than wishful thinking today.
As far as Erdogan is concerned, he laid Turkey’s demands on the line at Varna. The EU side, in return, showed that it will not bow to calls for Turkey’s EU bid to be ditched.
This, for the moment, is enough for Erdogan.
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