A test for both Turkey and the European Union
Today, on March 26, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov hosting the meeting as the term president of the EU, in the Bulgarian Black Sea port city of Varna. This is going to be the first meeting at such a level since a meeting in May 2017 in Brussels.
The meeting is taking place against a backdrop of tension over criticism by Brussels on March 23 regarding Turkey’s move against gas exploration efforts by the Greek Cypriot government in the disputed waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The meeting is also occurring at a time of tension over German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks condemning Turkey’s operation in Syria’s Afrin and Erdoğan accusing European leaders of failing to fulfill promises they made to Turkey.
Mutual expectations and problems hindering them can be summarized as follows:
• Believing that it did its part in a migrant deal signed in March 2016, Ankara wants Brussels to fulfill the terms of the agreement. According to the deal spearheaded by Merkel, Turkey was to maintain control (in cooperation with Greece) on the flow of migrants, whose numbers have increased as a civil war in Syria worsened. And in return, the EU was to share the burden of more than 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, resume membership negotiation chapters, make more liberalization in the Schengen visa regime and hold regular meetings at the leadership level.
• Three months after the deal, on July 15, 2016, a military coup attempt took place in Turkey. Many Turkish citizens who were accused of being linked to the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the coup, requested asylum in several EU countries, mainly Germany. Hundreds of them were military officers who were serving at Turkey’s diplomatic and NATO missions in Europe. Erdoğan several times accused the EU of not demonstrating the necessary solidarity against the military coup and of protecting the coup suspects.
• The state of emergency declared by the government on July 20, 2016, five days after the coup attempt, bypassed the legislative power of the parliament through emergency decrees, brought limitations to certain rights and freedoms, led to mass arrests and dismissals of civil servants, judges and prosecutors as well as journalists and politicians. The EU wants the state of emergency to end and the limitations on rights and freedoms to be removed in direction of political criteria of the EU.
• The Turkish government, on the other hand, wants solidarity against terrorism, especially against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates. Regarding financial aid for refugees, Erdoğan wants the recently released 3 billion euros to be delivered to the Turkish government without the necessity of presenting projects, since Turkey has been supporting refugees through projects of its own for the last six to seven years. Ankara suspects that the EU has been stalling Turkey in order to prolong its control over a possible refugee flow for as long as possible.There is little chance that there would be major improvements in the fields mentioned. European leaders do not want to be perceived by their voters as though they are making concessions to Erdoğan, who on the other hand wants to show his voters that he got the Europeans to accept his terms with his persistence.
But there are benefits for Turkey and the EU if relations improve. If the EU stops keep pushing Turkey away, it is highly possible that not only the level of democracy in Turkey will better but the investment environment will improve too. The threat for Europe in the worsening of relations with Turkey is not only less cooperation on the flow of refugees, which would definitely put pressure on the European governments that are already under pressure from right-wing parties. But the level of counter-terrorism cooperation between Turkey and the EU, especially on “foreign terrorist fighters” who travelled from EU countries to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Daesh, is important for European citizens, too. There’s no need to mention that better Turkey-EU relations will contribute to a stronger NATO and better security in Europe.
There seems to be a way out which can help both Erdoğan and EU leaders to return to their offices with their hands full and not being accused of making concessions: To start discussing upgrading the existing Customs Union Agreement between the two sides. And enhancing economic relations could help augment political relations for the good of all sides.