Turkey-EU summit an attempt to rebuild trust
“Suppose I am Donald Tusk. What advice would you give me on Turkey? What kind of stance should the EU adopt to reverse the democratic backsliding in Turkey? Should the EU close the doors or should it engage with Turkey?” I asked these questions to Bulgaria’s former President Rozen Plevneliev late last month.
“The reason why Bulgaria stands out as a reliable partner on the migration issue is the excellent cooperation we have had with Turkey,” said Plevneliev from the Bulgarian ski resort of Pamporovo, where he had come to meet a group of European journalists.
“Turkey is part of the solution,” he added.
Indeed, engagement seems to stand out as the main logic behind the European Union-Turkey summit that is scheduled to take place in Bulgaria’s Varna on March 26. European capitals seem to have begun to realize they cannot solve the “Turkey” problem by adopting a confrontational stance. How else can we explain the summit taking place despite the continuation of a democratic backslide in Turkey?
The only change that took place is the relative improvement in relations between Germany and Austria. But that in itself is not enough to justify the high level meeting. Indeed, Ankara has been telling European capitals for a long time that there was need for this high level dialogue, a call that fallen on deaf ears in Europe.
Under pressure from their public, which have become increasingly critical of Turkey’s anti-democratic practices, European leaders did not want to appear in the same picture as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But a war of words between European leaders and Erdoğan not only failed to improve the situation in Turkey but also further deteriorated bilateral ties between Turkey and member states.
So it is fair to say that European leaders have given the red light to the summit for damage control, as they saw the lack of dialogue could only lead to things getting out of hand. This is why they keep the expectations limited.
Turkey on the other hand seems to see the summit as an opportunity to start rebuilding bridges of trust. It sees the summit as the beginning of a process where relations can return to form. “Let’s revive the accession process and start talks to update customs union,” Erdoğan is probably going to say. “Not so fast,” is probably the answer he will receive.
While the mood on the Turkish side is: “Whatever happened has happened, let’s move forward,” the mood in Europe is “don’t underestimate the damage that has been done, and don’t expect to move forward while problems that impede our relations, such as E.U. citizens in Turkish jails, remain.”
As a result, Erdoğan would probably complain that the EU cannot pick and choose. In other words, it cannot expect Turkey to continue to deliver on the refugee deal while parts of the deal still await implementation by the EU, such as the voluntary resettlement of refugees to European countries.
Erdoğan could perhaps secure some promises on the repatriation issue and perhaps a more flexible attitude in the remaining criteria that Turkey needs to fulfill to lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens.
Beyond that it looks difficult to put Turkey-EU relations back on track. There can be no business as usual as long as Turkey continues to distance the country from democratic criteria. The EU seems to have simply come to the conclusion that “as things are not going to get dramatically better, it is better to manage the situation and cooperate where possible with Turkey.”
That might suit the Turkish leader, though reaching a consensus within the EU to endorse this minimalist modest line may well prove trickier. Look at how tension with Greek Cyprus and Greece has been treated differently. While there was talk of cancelling the summit after the Turkish navy prevented oil exploration off the island, Greece did not call for a cancellation despite the detention of two of its soldiers in Turkey.