Turkey’s President and Foreign Minister’s visit to Brussels on 9 March could not have come at a worse time.
A few hours before they arrived, on the day the Commission was marking the first 100 days since taking office, its President, Ursula von der Leyen, told us that the EU was facing several crises at once.
The outbreak and rapid spread of the coronavirus, its possible human costs and threat to economy were alarming enough.
It also happened to be the day the European stock markets suffered their worst losses since the global financial crisis of 2008.
Difficult negotiations over Brexit, climate emergency, shaping Europe’s digital future and maintaining cyber-security were other priorities.
The situation at the Greek-Turkish border was another pressing issue. Both Ursula von der Leyen and the Council President Charles Michel expressed a desire to reduce tensions and restart dialogue with Turkey.
More than any other, this was the time for skillful and creative diplomacy.
Talks lasting an hour and 45 minutes was followed by a press conference where President Erdoğan’s absence said it all.
The EU insisted the 2016 agreement was still valid, albeit with some missing elements. “We expressed very clearly to President Erdoğan our commitment to move forward on these issues, provided that it is reciprocal,” von der Leyen said.
“Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes”, described by the German Chancellor Merkel earlier as an “unacceptable” behavior, clearly backfired.
Turkey wanted the 2016 refugee deal to be updated before the EU leaders’ summit on March 26.
On March 17, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and possibly British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet President Erdoğan in Istanbul to discuss the migrant issue.
Channels of dialogue seemed to be wide open, but there was no sign that Turkey intended to adopt a different diplomatic approach.
President Erdoğan said he would not stop migrants trying to cross the border into Greece until Turkey’s demands were met.
In a speech to his Justice and Development Party group in Parliament, President Erdoğan again likened the EU member Greece to Nazis, saying “There is no difference between what the Nazis did and those images from the Greek border”.
The Turkish President had made similar comments in the past, sparking diplomatic incidents with Germany and Netherlands.
A similar reaction from Greece, where memories of Nazi occupation and atrocities are still fresh, seems inevitable.
If resolving migrant border crisis is contingent on EU help in Syria, as Turkey rightly stated before, this is a strange way to achieve it.
Contrary to what Turkish officials claim, the plight of refugees and the heavy-handed response by Greece do not go unnoticed.
In Europe and in Britain, politicians, civil society organisations and the media have been protesting and raising questions on refugees and migrants at the Greek-Turkish border.
Migration will remain to be a key issue on the global agenda for many years to come.
To address it, especially at a time of multiple crisis, we all need more cooperation and coordination, not another un-diplomatic war of words.
This post is also available in: Turkish