The background story of Erdoğan’s meeting with the EU

The background story of Erdoğan’s meeting with the EU

The May 25 meeting in Brussels between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk was regarded as a chance for a new start in Turkey-EU relations. 

Those relations had been suffering a lot, particularly since the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey, believed to have been masterminded by the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen. 

Just before that military coup attempt there was actually hope of an improvement in relations following a migration deal between Turkey and the EU in March, followed by its successful implementation by Turkey and Greece. 

However, ties deteriorated amid mass detentions and dismissals right after the coup attempt as part of the state of emergency that the government declared on July 20, the arrest of journalists and writers in Turkey, and the stance of EU countries (especially Germany and Greece) in not returning military officers who asked for asylum to Turkey. Tension further escalated when a number of EU countries, especially Germany and the Netherlands, did not permit ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) ministers to visit in their official capacity and campaign for the April 16 referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system. Amid that disagreement, Erdoğan accused European politicians of behaving like “Nazis” and “fascists.”

But after Erdoğan and top EU officials settled for a 12-month roadmap to overhaul Ankara-Brussels relations, tension decreased and dialogue once again started. High-ranking diplomats had their first meeting to draw the framework on June 13, during which an important decision was made to hold an anti-terror meeting between Turkey and the EU in late June or early July.

As tension de-escalated, Turkish officials led by President Erdoğan started to give statements about opening new EU accession negotiation chapters, believing that problems were behind left behind. However, background information obtained from various diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, show that this may not be easy unless Turkey takes certain steps to improve the current situation on rights and freedoms.

According to diplomatic sources, Juncker said in the May 25 meeting that the Council of Europe’s monitoring of Turkey was a fixed benchmark and they could not move forward in accession talks with a country still under monitoring. Erdoğan replied to Juncker that Ankara would “cooperate with the Council of Europe and take the necessary steps to reach the status quo ante” was interpreted by the EU as a hint that Turkey could lift the state of emergency. However, that may be a misinterpretation because Erdoğan has not hinted anything similar in his remarks in Turkey since then. 

EU officials are also failing to recognize Erdoğan’s strong criticisms about the tolerance shown to “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ)” suspects and suspected members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which are crucial issues for the majority of public opinion in Turkey. 

Tusk, meanwhile, seems to have left the door for visa liberalization half-open, as part of the “successful cooperation” in the migration deal. He said it may be possible “in the event of Turkey delivering reform of the anti-terror law” after the German elections on Sept. 24. It should be noted that overhauling the anti-terror law is not independent of the state of emergency or the ongoing debate on independence of the judiciary in Turkey.

Apparently, Erdoğan did not object to this during the May 25 meeting and hinted at cooperation. 

It seems that both Turkey and the EU also agreed to move forward for an update of the existing Customs Union agreement, which could similarly become operative after the German elections. 

However, Erdoğan condemned the attitude of the Greek Cypriot government in ongoing negotiations, accusing them of “asking for everything.” 

Erdoğan reportedly did not react negatively to criticism in the meeting of the language used by himself and AK Parti officials against European politicians during the referendum campaign, and actually since the meeting such strong language has not been heard.

But the key issue is opening up new negotiation chapters. And that is not likely to happen as long as the current state of emergency implementations do not change in a positive direction. This is another reason why the EU has been closely monitoring ongoing court cases in Turkey, especially cases against media members and now also the response to “Justice March” of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu from Ankara to Istanbul.

Summarizing the situation from the EU perspective, one ranking European source said ties with Turkey are “an open-door policy.”

“We are not going to be the ones to close that door. It is up to Turkey to pass through it, and Ankara knows what it has to do for that,” they said.