Everybody wondered who would let go of the rope first, the EU or Turkey. On Monday in Varna, both decided to hold tight. As Austrian and Dutch leaders and some other opponents of Turkey’s membership circulated the idea of offering the government in Ankara second-class membership, or a model like post-Brexit Britain, it was important that both EU leaders and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconfirmed full membership of the European Union as the target of the process.
Due to the mixed messages coming from the EU leaders, nobody was expecting impressive or encouraging results from the summit. However, having a Turkish-EU summit in itself was a success. After the meeting in Brussels a year ago, when the EU leaders and the Turkish President got together many people were holding their breath at the press conference.
Both parties were frank and honest with each other, with Erdogan making a call for a fair and balanced approach; he expressed his disappointment at the apparently never-ending EU membership process. The Turkish leader described the meeting as a step forward and expressed his hope that the difficult period was behind them. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, both offered their critiques and concerns in front of the cameras along with appreciation of Turkey’s role in dealing with the refugee crisis. This fine tuning of the leaders did not overlap with the spirit of the current political atmosphere. Trump’s new world order is based on tension, muscle diplomacy and sudden shifts of policies; we can forget about fine-tuning 280-character twitter messages. Russia, meanwhile, is high on brinkmanship, pushing in all directions as much as its economy and military capacity will allow.
After a relationship of more than 60 years, the Europe-Turkey train is still on the track. This is the main outcome of the summit. If the rationality and statesmanship of the leaders played a major role in this result, the power and magnitude of EU-Turkey relations both in a political sense and social dynamics is the second most important factor. Despite the apparent reluctance of both sides about continuing a shaky relationship, nobody is ready and willing to pull up the drawbridge just yet.
For sure, the key issue for Monday’s summit was the irregular immigration deal between Turkey and the EU, almost two years after Ankara’s game-changer refugee proposal. The then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu came up with a political innovation to the EU Summit in order to stop the flow of refugees through the Aegean Sea which had put pressure on European governments. Even the future of Schengen’s open borders was questioned in EU corridors. If the refugee flow was not at least slowed down, hard borders were waiting to be reinstated. Turkey agreed to the return of all refugees who passed through its borders and proposed to send one Syrian already in Turkey for each newcomer who entered its territory. Suddenly, the once uncontrollable flood virtually stopped. Just a few days after the start of the new process, the flow dropped by 97 per cent. It was the power of diplomacy, political innovation and the Turkey-EU partnership which stopped what warships and satellite surveillance couldn’t.
In return, the EU promised visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to become a reality by the end of June 2016, and €6 billion financial aid to ease Turkey’s already massive burden of caring for the refugees. Almost one-third of this has been paid, but the balance is waiting for EU approval and Turkey’s projects to be submitted. Furthermore, no steps have been taken by the EU yet with regards to visa-free travel, the essential element of the deal for Ankara. The EU has already got what it wanted; there are no crowds of refugees in Turkey waiting to cross to Greece or Bulgaria, so Erdogan’s government shouldn’t let the Europeans forget their visa promise (unlike others which have been overlooked). There are still some steps to be taken by Turkish officials to finalise the technical aspects of visa liberalisation, but they are not real obstacles for the final implementation of the process as long as Brussels has the political will to do so.
As expected, Messrs Tusk and Juncker brought the Cyprus issue to the talks and press conference. Tusk’s eyes never left his statement as he read it out; it was clearly written in Brussels, not Varna. Oil drilling operations are unacceptable for Turkey unless a comprehensive deal on Cyprus is achieved through negotiations under the UN mandate. The EU is aware of how big a mistake it was to get Cyprus into the club without a political solution.
As President Erdogan put it during the press conference, Turkey brought a proposal paper to the summit. The document included the continuation of the summits, which, it was already agreed on 18 March, 2016, are to be bi-annual; the furthering of negotiations; a humanitarian assistance programme; speeding up financial assistance for refugees; and updating the Customs Union, among other issues. Aside from the EU’s reply, this paper alone indicated Ankara’s intention to continue dialogue and communication rather than simply use the summit as a photo-op.
During the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, EU countries were reluctant to stand with Turkish democracy. Although the EU institutions were clear and prompt in condemning the coup, the real problem was with Europe’s national governments. Those responsible for the coup, and their supporters, have found safe havens across the continent. During Turkey’s last election campaign, there were European bans on the ruling AK Party elite, including President Erdogan, who couldn’t arrange party meetings or even video conferences among expatriate Turkish communities. Members of the terrorist PKK, though, were free to propagate their campaign against the elected President.
The EU has concerns about the Turkish government’s response to the coup, such as the procedures used during the state of emergency and its length, the rule of law, freedom of expression and military operations in Syria. There may well be common ground on some of these matters, but in order to make progress the best way is to talk face-to-face and engage in dialogue rather than turn Turkey into an election issue and try to back it into a corner. EU countries should have enough experience to know that such a strategy does not work.
Turkey has faced a very turbulent security environment over the past couple of years. On the southern border, there is no functioning state in Syria; until the Afrin operation and Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkish cities and towns were being targeted by rockets fired by Daesh and the Kurdish PKK/YPG. Terrorist infiltrations were threatening not only the daily lives of ordinary Turkish citizens but also the whole economy. What’s more, the coup attempt was traumatic for the Turkish people as the country’s own army helicopters and tanks fired at their fellow citizens, killing hundreds. How much solidarity was shown by key allies is still a valid question asked by people on the street. The selective anti-terror approach has damaged the credibility of the EU.
Turkey saved the EU with a refugee deal; now it is the union’s turn to keep Turkey’s membership process on track and fulfil Europe’s promise by implementing visa-free travel. Although little has changed on the ground, the leaders were smiling after the press conference. They must realise that it is in everyone’s best interest to be rational in irrational times.
The writer is a foreign policy analyst.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.