Dimitar Bechev
Mar 27 2018

Turkey and the EU: Avoiding a crash in Varna

Last time the Black Sea city of Varna was the focal point of Turkey’s relations with Europe it was not a happy occasion. In the late autumn of 1444, Sultan Murad II defeated the forces of Wladislaw III, king of Poland and Hungary, and Janos Hunyadi, the master of Transylvania. The battle was a turning point of sorts. It deterred the papacy, the main sponsor of the ill-fated crusade, and the European states from sending reinforcements to Constantinople, which was to fall to the Ottomans in 1453.

Times have changed and the battle of Varna is at best a faded memory. Yet the summit held by EU leaders and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on March 26 in the Euxinograd Palace, on the outskirts of the Bulgarian city, was held in a certain air of belligerence. There had been opening volleys from both sides. On March 22, the EU Council, a gathering of heads of state and government, condemned what it said were Turkey’s illegal actions in relation to Cyprus and Greece – a reference to the escalating disputes regarding the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean and last month’s detention of two Greek soldiers who strayed across the Turkish border in Thrace. 

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry fired back. EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik meanwhile accused Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a prominent opponent of Turkish membership, of hypocrisy. Pro-government media in Turkey cast several EU states as safe havens for Kurdish militants, a grievance that goes back decades.

Against this backdrop, Erdoğan opted for playing the good cop. Before taking off to Varna, he stated that EU accession remained Turkey’s strategic goal and said all hurdles were artificial.  One could be forgiven for thinking, for a split second, that the year was 2008, not 2018. But there is an aspiring good cop on the EU’s side as well: Boyko Borisov, prime minister of Bulgaria which holds the union’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2018. 

Borisov, a former bodyguard turned police chief, seeks to be the go-between for neighbouring Turkey and the EU. The gathering in Varna is a feather in his cap. Attended by European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk (in a slip of the tongue Borisov called him Donald Trump at a press conference), it was intended to renew the 2016 refugee deal for another period. “Syria and Iraq are (geographically) closer to us than Brussels and London,” Borisov pointed out. He should feel happy. The photo-op went OK.

Varna was about toning down tensions rather than resolving outstanding conflicts. Having set the expectations low in the first instance, Erdoğan and European leaders could not go wrong. “If you ask me, did we reach solutions or compromises, the answer is ‘no’,” Juncker said. Instead, a flurry of nice words: no termination of Turkey's EU accession talks (contrary to the European Parliament's wishes), restoring the atmosphere of trust, the failed coup of July 15, 2016, was totally unacceptable, fighting terrorism is a common cause.

Yet there was no breakthrough on issues of substance. The EU is unlikely to move on either the Turkish demand for an upgrade of the customs union or indeed the lifting of Schengen visa requirements, without improvements on human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. Still, Erdoğan played down the disagreements: “We hope that we have left a difficult period in Turkey-EU relations behind and it is high time to start updating the customs union,” he said.

There was no final decision on the 3 billion euros of aid to be disbursed to Ankara either. On March 14, the European Commission declared it had “mobilized” the funds. The Turkish media then reported the tranche had been green-lighted, though in reality, as Brussels insiders warned, mobilizing in essence means that member states had embarked on talks on how to share the cost. 

There still might be a deal on the horizon, but it does not seem some way off. Juncker's remark at the press conference that the two Greek soldiers would be home before Orthodox Easter (April 8), might well be a hint of extra strings attached. EU leaders might have also privately pressed Erdoğan to back off over Cyprus as well. We will find out in the weeks to come.

What Turkey and the EU claim credit for is avoiding a crash. In truth, Europe has given up its hope of changing Turkey. Erdoğan, as much as he enjoys flexing his muscles, knows that he needs the EU as a partner. Over the past months, he has tried to patch things up with Germany and France. Bilateral trade is on the upswing too, after a period of stagnation. Relations are proving resilient, even if as frosty as the winds blowing over the Black Sea.