Turkey and the European Union are seeking to reset relations following months of acrimony.
Despite fears that Turkey is sliding into authoritarianism, EU leaders will host the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Bulgarian resort of Varna on Monday. The meeting comes as the EU is looking to Turkey to maintain its role as gatekeeper for migrants wanting to enter Europe. Ankara has a long list of its own demands.
But ahead of the Varna meeting, EU-Turkish tensions erupted again Thursday.
“The European Council strongly condemns Turkey’s continued illegal actions in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea and underlines its full solidarity with Cyprus and Greece,” read an EU statement. Turkey has deployed warships in a series of territorial disputes with EU members Greece and Cyprus.
“We cannot accept the statement on Turkey,” tweeted Omer Celik, Turkey’s minister for EU membership.
“It will be a photo op, an occasion, an opportunity for the Turkish regime to send a message home that everything is all right with the European Union, which is important as the regime is more and more isolated,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar.
Erdogan is expected to press Brussels to introduce visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, as well as call for the expansion of its Customs Union agreement with the EU. Both demands remain stalled because of Brussels’ concerns about Turkey’s human rights record.
“Closer relations between the European Union and Turkey can only be conditioned on the lifting of the state of emergency, returning to rule of law,” declared 75 members of the European Parliament in a joint letter ahead of Monday’s meeting.
Tens of thousands of people have been detained in an ongoing crackdown following Turkey’s 2015 failed coup, including many journalists and human rights defenders. Ankara strongly defends the crackdown, insisting its democracy remains under threat.
“The visa waiver won’t happen because, despite several promises, Turkey has refused to moderate its draconian anti-terror laws as far as an expanded Customs Union goes,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. “[German Chancellor] Angela Merkel has said it’s not possible until Turkey shows respect to human rights under the [EU] Copenhagen criteria.
“So, the most we can expect [is that] the current cease-fire and truce continues [between EU and Turkey] and mutual screaming doesn’t start again.”
But Erdogan does have leverage over the EU. As spring approaches, the numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa seeking to enter Europe from Turkey through Greece and Bulgaria traditionally rise. Ankara is enforcing a two-year-old agreement with the EU to control migrants entering Europe. The continuation of the deal is a priority for the EU and is expected to be discussed at Monday’s meeting. Earlier this month, the European Commission announced $3.7 billion would be sent to Turkey as part of the migrant deal.
That could give the Turkish president some leverage to ease visa restrictions for Turks.
“It’s absolutely inconceivable for the European countries to open their borders to 80 million Turks. The majority of them are looking desperately to emigrate,” said political scientist Aktar. “The only feasible, reasonable option on the table is a limited visa waiver for those groups like businessmen or academics … and still this relies on the good will of the nations ready to do this. It’s not automatic. It’s not in the pocket.”
But with Ankara threatening to turn its back on its traditional Western allies and orientate itself toward Moscow and Tehran, observers point out there is also a strategic awareness in the EU of the importance of maintaining ties with Turkey.
“There is this realization by the EU, like in the United States, Turkey occupies a very strategically important geography,” said analyst Yesilada. “If you lose Turkey to Russia and authoritarianism, it would jeopardize a region much broader than Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Middle East. So, there is a visible reluctance to cut off economic as well as political ties.”