Turkey and the EU: Looking beyond the Varna Summit
The long-awaited EU-Turkey leaders’ summit was held in Varna on March 26 under the auspices of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, the current president of the EU Council. At the summit Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Ankara’s delegation went to Varna hoping to address a packed agenda, including the transfer of delayed EU funds for refugees, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, the modernization of the Customs Union, and cooperation on counterterrorism. The parties also discussed recent tensions in the Mediterranean that were precipitated by Greek Cyprus’ efforts to drill for natural gas in the island’s contested exclusive economic zone - an act that Turkey sees as a violation of the Turkish Cypriots’ sovereign rights.
As many expected, the sides left Varna without reaching any concrete agreements, simply committing to maintain channels of dialogue. The way that the leaders conduct negotiations in the coming weeks is likely to affect the tone of the upcoming EU country report on Turkey in mid-April, based on assessments of the candidate country’s alignment with the European Union’s political and technical criteria for accession.
A recent Turkish court decision to release a number of journalists before the summit might have relieved the Europeans, but the EU’s minimum value benchmark to move forward with either the modernization of the Customs Union or visa liberalization is for Turkey to lift the state of emergency.
However, under current conditions - especially while cross-border military operations in Syria are continuing - it is highly unlikely that the government will lift the state of emergency, even if such a move would decrease polarization at home and improve Ankara’s image abroad.
Since the July 2016 coup attempt, the “value gap” between Europe and Turkey has become too wide to be closed. Where the EU sees violations of human rights and rule of law, Ankara sees necessary measures to confront numerous threats at home and abroad.
Unfortunately, the exchange of harsh messages between Turkish and European leaders last year damaged relations considerably, turning domestic public opinion in European countries against Turkey. Although the election season is over – prompting Turkey to attempt to restore bilateral relations with some European countries – mainstream European parties still feel pressure from far right forces waiting to take over in the next elections. This is one of the key factors preventing the EU from taking reconciliatory steps that could be interpreted as concessions to Turkey.
The current stalemate in Turkey-EU relations seems unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, let alone in one summit. But the meeting in Varna manifested a willingness on both sides to maintain Turkey’s EU anchor.
Turkey is an indispensable ally for the EU in terms of preserving security on the continent’s eastern and southern flanks, at a time when transatlantic relations are experiencing severe turbulence. Turkey and the EU have shared strategic interests in cultivating cooperation in the fields of security, economy, energy and culture. Aside from Europe being its main partner in trade, Turkey benefits from maintaining its EU anchor, which serves as a reassurance for foreign investors: An essential element of sustainable economic growth. That is why diplomats opt to continue the ostensible “hypocrisy” regarding Turkey’s long-stalled accession process, as the risks of pursuing any alternative are too great.
But even without putting a name on it, relations between Turkey and the EU seem to be evolving on a transactional basis, as prospects are dim for the opening of any new negotiation chapters.
As a result, in the upcoming weeks the key issue for Europe will be to figure out how to “anchor” Turkey without abandoning European values. In that process, steps to “normalize” post-coup Turkey will prove crucial in determining the future of relations between Ankara and Brussels.