It has been a while since we last heard about “anchoring”, in the context of the faltering Turkey-EU relations.
Just as we started to think that Turkey slipped its western moorings almost completely towards uncharted seas, there appears to be a lighthouse on the horizon, after all.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, renowned for his fiery rhetoric and hostile posturing against Europe, will be meeting the EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council president Donald Tusk and Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov, whose country holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, in the Black Sea port city of Varna, on March 26.
Turkey had been pushing for a summit in Brussels between the leaders of the three EU institutions and the Turkish President for some time; but so far, the EU had been reluctant to agree to such a meeting.
Turkey’s massive crackdown on civil society and press freedom and the Turkish government’s hostile rhetoric towards Europe, made any significant rapprochement unlikely.
It was neighboring Bulgaria, whose rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2018 that made such a summit possible.
By holding the meeting in Varna, instead of Brussels, the EU is lowering the summit’s profile. Nevertheless, it is an important sign that neither side is willing to give up and both are moving to mend their ties.
When the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov visited Turkey earlier in the year, it was reported that he raised the question of imprisoned journalists, particularly the foreign media workers. He was said to have relayed discomfort of the EU leaders in talking to Turkey while the crackdown on free speech is continuing.
The presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın said that they attached great importance to the Varna summit and they believed it would significantly contribute to the acceleration of the Turkey-EU relations in 2018.
Ahead of the EU-Turkey summit in Bulgaria, Ankara’s envoy to Brussels, Faruk Kaymakçı, delivered a position paper in relation to the visa liberalization to Turkish citizens, an issue that has been effectively put on shelf since 2016.
For Turkey to secure visa-free travel for its citizens to 28-nation bloc, 72 different requirements need to be fulfilled, among them reform of Turkey’s anti-terror laws, data protection laws and an agreement with the EU police agency, Europol.
The most challenging benchmark for Turkey is the change in the law on counter-terrorism, used widely for the crackdown on journalists and opponents of the government.
Turkish authorities are saying that they will change the law in a way that the law will “re-express itself”. According to a Hürriyet Daily News report, an unidentified official said the amendment would not inconvenience Turkey. It would not negatively affect the struggle against terror, but still be acceptable to the EU.
Daily Cumhuriyet reported that the proposal submitted by Ankara to the EU pledged that “critical expressions of governmental acts” will not be considered a crime “if they are within the boundaries of journalism”.
Setting boundaries of journalism is open to interpretation. Considering Turkey’s claims that all journalists in jail are there, not because of their journalism, but due to their criminal activities, proposed configuration of the law is unlikely to satisfy the demand that security laws would not be used to crack down on the media.
There will be obstacles on anti-corruption monitoring, collaboration with the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL), privacy laws and recognition of Cyprus Republic, too.
Turkey’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Faruk Kaymakçı, says that “if the EU gives positive signals to Turkey, Turkey will do more in terms of reforms”.
But, both in Europe and in Turkey, people are wondering whether the EU really can anchor Turkey again.
Turkey’s sharp decline on democracy and human rights pop up as the main obstacle to normalizing relations in almost every field in international relations.
Turkey’s drift away from European norms and values are so pronounced that many in the EU have been weighing up the pros and cons of a more permanent break.
At the end of last year, the EU leaders were considering whether to end accession talks and Mr. Erdogan was daring European leaders to “do the necessary thing” and say they did not want to continue the path with Turkey.
But last week, ahead of his arrival in Rome for his visit to Vatican, the Turkish President made it clear that his country still wanted full membership. Other options would not do.
Clearly, both the EU and Turkey still see merit in rebuilding their relationship. Despite exchanging insults daily, and a serious downturn in relations, Turkey and EU, obviously, have not reached the end of the line yet.
Much as we applaud any engagement that would encourage Turkey to stop the alarming consolidation of its authoritarian regime, unfortunately, neither the EU nor Turkey sound sincere in their latest attempt to be reconciled.
This post is also available in: Turkish