On July 1, Austria will take over the rotating EU presidency.
In coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative government said preventing illegal migration, protection of the EU borders and security would be their main priorities.
Austria’s hard-line stance toward migration is well-known. How they will deal with Turkey once they assume the EU’s rotating presidency is less evident.
This week, first the EU’s General Affairs Council and then the 28 EU leaders at their summit in Brussels reiterated the importance they attach to Turkey.
Turkey was confirmed as a key partner, particularly in areas such as migration, counterterrorism, energy, transport, economy and trade.
A part of the migration policy agreement they reached in Brussels was to release the second tranche of 3 billion Euro to Turkey for Syrian refugees.
The number of illegal border crossings into the EU has fallen by 95 % since almost 2.5 million refugees arrived in the EU in 2015-16 and Turkey was commended for its cooperation in what the EU leaders called “delivery of these clear results”.
Earlier in the week, the EU General Affairs Council had said Brussels could not open any more ‘chapters’ or policy areas in accession talks or modernise the EU-Turkey customs union due to Ankara’s failure to meet European standards in various areas.
The European Council endorsed these conclusions on enlargement and association process, adopted by the EU General Affairs Council on 26 June 2018.
So, it is not just Austria, with its six-month rotating presidency, that Turkey should be worried about. Concerns over Turkey moving further away from the European Union are shared by other member states, too.
However, Turkey’s relations with Austria have been more strained than most. In a recent interview with the Vienna-based Turkish-language newspaper, Yeni Vatan, the veteran Austrian journalist at Profil, Association of European Journalists (AEJ) President, Otmar Lahodynsky said that part of the blame rested with the Austrian politicians. They used the anti-Turkey rhetoric for increasing their votes. But, according to Mr. Lahodynsky, the Turkish government has been interfering with the lives of Turkish citizens living in Austria for too long. “President Erdoğan’s strong and aggressive comments about Austria and its politicians have been poisoning the relations and it should stop” Mr Lahodysky said.
Hours after the Brussels summit ended on Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu said Turkey did not believe positive steps would be taken with the European Union while Austria holds the presidency of the bloc this year.
I was in Brussels this week, attending an AEJ seminar at the European Parliament where, among other prominent European politicians, European parliament President Antonio Tajani and Head of Permanent Representation of Austria to the EU, Professor Klemens Fischer addressed the meeting.
President Tajani called the illegal immigration “the most dangerous problem for unity”, even more dangerous than the issue of Brexit.
Prof. Fischer underlined Austria’s presidency priorities as immigration, security, protection and closer relations with the Western Balkans; promoting the Union’s values, both inside and outside the EU.
I asked him if the Austrian presidency would bring a different approach to the EU relations with Turkey.
His answer was “no”.
“You do know the position of my government. That will not change. As a chair, we will moderate. Turkey will stay as a candidate, but we will not open any chapters. If I go back to my academic background, I would say that we should see what Mr. Erdoğan will do with his new power first. Let’s wait. What I do not like is judging before anything happens. By the way, we have to accept, whether we like it or not, it was a democratic decision. Either we accept democratic decisions, or we do not. Let’s wait and see,” he said.
That’s the convoluted language of diplomacy.
Succinctly put, the issue of migration looms ever larger for Europe. Populism is on the rise and Turkey’s relations with the EU are likely to be turning even more transactional.
This post is also available in: Turkish