The EU said it failed to win a pledge from Turkey to free journalists it has jailed and improve other rights for its citizens but that it will maintain talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their first meeting in almost year. Mr Erdogan travelled to the Bulgarian seaside city of Varna to meet Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, after months of mutual recrimination over the bloc’s delay in waiving visas for Turkish tourists and Ankara’s sparring with EU states and retreat on rights following a botched military coup in 2016. “We didn’t achieve any kind of concrete compromise today,” Mr Tusk said at a news conference with Mr Erdogan. “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. “Only progress on these issues will allow us to improve EU-Turkey relations, including the accession process,” he said. “We agreed that we should continue our dialogue in difficult circumstances.” The Nato member began negotiating EU membership in 2005, but the process to admit a Muslim nation of 80m people moved glacially and all but froze after Turkey imposed a state of emergency and suspended freedoms in the wake of the coup attempt against Mr Erdogan.
Since then, Turkey has jailed more than 50,000 people, including journalists, academics and opposition politicians, outlawed dozens of civil society groups, newspapers and television stations and held a constitutional referendum that could see Mr Erdogan retaining power until 2029. Turkish courts released a handful of imprisoned journalists, including a German national, in the weeks ahead of the summit. Both Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk acknowledged Mr Erdogan’s role in dramatically reducing irregular migration to the continent after agreeing to readmit asylum seekers from Greek islands under a €6bn package. But friction over the deal emerged during the news conference. Mr Erdogan complained that the bloc has so far disbursed just €1.8bn of the funds for the care of Syrian refugees and dragged its feet on a pledge to end visa requirements for Turks traveling to Europe. He also called on Brussels to update the customs union, which governs Turkey’s trade with the bloc, its biggest export market. “I hope we have put this difficult period behind us,” Mr Erdogan said, but added: “Rather than unfair criticism, we expect robust support …It would be a perilous mistake for the EU to exclude Turkey from enlargement.”
The Turkish military’s capture of the Syrian province of Afrin from a Syrian Kurdish militia could escalate violence there, Mr Tusk warned, while Ankara insists the cross-border incursion is in response to a national security threat posed by the militants. Mr Juncker said he was “saddened” by the state of ties with Turkey and urged Mr Erdogan in particular to improve relations with Greece and Cyprus. Turkey dispatched naval vessels last month to stop Cyprus from drilling offshore for hydrocarbons in what the EU has decried as an “illegal” blockade. Turkish police then arrested two Greek soldiers on espionage charges who Greece says inadvertently crossed its border.
Yet Mr Juncker also said Europe wants Turkey as a strategic partner to manage a host of security concerns that go beyond irregular migration. The country serves as a bulwark against the turmoil of the Middle East and can help counterbalance geopolitical risks spanning Russia to Iran and Syria. For its part, Turkey still sees full EU membership as its strategic goal, Mr Erdogan said earlier in the day. “No one expected a breakthrough now, but neither side wants a break-up,” said Zeynep Alemdar, chairwoman of the international relations department at Okan university in Istanbul. “At a time when most of the bridges with Europe are burning, the best outcome for Turkey was bringing the customs union and visa liberalisation back onto the agenda. It appears there is still a way to go.”