Why did nothing come out of the EU-Turkey meeting?

Why did nothing come out of the EU-Turkey meeting?

Little was expected from the March 26 meeting in the Bulgarian port town of Varna between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and leaders of the European Union, even though some had hoped that at least moves toward an upgrading of the existing Customs Union agreement could emerge.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s comment that he “has faith” in Turkey’s EU membership target was largely rhetorical and even felt ironic under the current circumstances. European Council President Donald Tusk was more definitive when he said there had been no solutions or compromises in existing problems between the sides. Erdoğan said they had agreed to “accelerate” relations and noted that the fact of the meeting itself was more important than what had been discussed. The following day, on March 27, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said he “could not see any fair approach” from the EU.

It is clear that the family photo of the meeting – with Tusk, Juncker and Erdoğan shaking hands and smiling to the cameras along with host Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov - was politically important for Erdoğan amid Western criticism about the state of democracy in Turkey. Despite lack of progress, EU leaders seem keen to give the picture that relations will be continued with Turkey - not only because losing Ankara could be very costly in strategic terms but also because Turkey is important for preventing a possible influx of Syrians and other refugees to Europe. Tranches of 3 billion euros from Brussels are contributing to Turkish efforts in hosting over 3 million Syrians currently in the country.

It would be hard to say that there was much of a dialogue in the Varna meeting. It could be assumed that both sides said what they believed they had to say and did not listen to the other side very much.

Erdoğan asked the EU leaders to keep their promises regarding visa liberalization and membership negotiations (in line with the 2016 migration agreement), as well as to be more active in the fight against terrorism. EU leaders, meanwhile, again asked Erdoğan to lift Turkey’s state of emergency and resume democratic harmonization with the EU if Ankara still wants to be a member of the bloc.

Unfortunately, it seems that neither of the sides are in much of a position to meet those demands because of respective public opinion. What’s more, an upgrade of the Customs Union - which would benefit both Turkey and the producing countries of the EU – also does not seem possible due to the political considerations of some member states.

Delivering a speech in a reception at the U.K.’s Istanbul Consulate on March 26, British Ambassador Dominick Chilcott noted that it was no longer possible for his country to support Turkey’s membership of the EU, because the U.K. is set to leave the EU through the Brexit process. However, he also stressed that this would not stop London supporting Turkey for “strategic reasons,” adding that “Turkey remains indispensable for us.”

Under the current difficult circumstances, perhaps a mere continuation of relations - even without any improvement - should be seen as a gain. Stagnation is at least better than a larger row that would end up only making things worse.

Murat Yetkin, hdn,