What to expect from the upcoming Turkey-EU meet
The EU term president, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, will host Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a meeting on March 26 in the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Varna.
This meeting will be crucial, not only because Turkey and President Erdoğan face harsh criticism by European politicians, but also in regards to the future of relations between Turkey and the EU.
European criticism toward Turkey claims the regression of democratic rights and rule of law, especially after the state of emergency declared by the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government following the military coup attempt of July 15, 2016. The most serious issues include the arrests of journalists, writers and politicians, who have been charged with terrorism and espionage, mass removals of politicians from government offices due to their alleged links to the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen (FETÖ), the United States-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the coup attempt and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In recent weeks, Turkey’s military operation into Syria to clear its border area from the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a branch of the PKK in Syria, was added to the list of criticisms when the European Parliament called to end it on March 15, which has been opposed by Turkey.
On the other hand, four months before the coup attempt, Turkey and the EU signed a conceptual deal in March 2016 for the flow of migration into EU countries that has been triggered by the Syrian civil war. Orchestrated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the deal suggested sharing Turkey’s burden to host Syrian refugees, the opening up of new negotiation chapters for membership to the EU, high level political contacts between Turkey and the EU and the easing of visa requirements for Schengen countries within the EU.
Ankara has been accusing the EU of not honoring the deal, since Turkey has done its part in stopping unregistered migration in cooperation with Greece. Erdoğan and other Turkish officials have repeatedly said the EU has even failed to share the burden properly, while European politicians claim the democratic outlook in Turkey as a justification for the delay.
But on the same day that calls were made in the EU leadership not to give a cent to Turkey, as such financial support could only consolidate authoritarian tendencies in Turkey, the EU Commission released the three billion euros aid package for burden sharing with Turkey on March 14. The next day the European Parliament’s call on Turkey came, which is not binding, but took the steam off European politicians who are angry with Ankara. The move amounted to killing two birds with one stone for the EU leadership, as Turkey-bashing in public opinion was combined with unblocking a major aid package to Turkey to moderate relations at the diplomatic level.
Under the circumstances, what could be expected from the Varna meeting?
Indications show a probable scenario would entail starting negotiations for upgrading the existing Customs Union agreement between Turkey and the EU. The European politicians could tell their voters that the move was to their advantage and the Turkish government can tell Turkish voters that despite the claims of an axis shift from West to East, relations with the EU are recovering. Erdoğan may insist on easing the visa requirements with a reduced focus for certain investors and academics, but it is hard to say at this point whether he will get it. On the other hand, upgrading works on the Customs Union seems to be doable for all sides.