Germany has become the President of the European Union Council, and an intense 6-month period has started for the European Union and European affairs in general. For Ankara, this Presidency has been a long-awaited, pivotal time frame, and Germany at the helm of the EU may indeed prove to be a turning point.
The question is, though: turning towards what?
After Germany assumed the Presidency, the first pass to Turkey came from the leadership of the EU itself: High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell is now in Turkey for a two-day visit on July 6 and 7.
Germany’s short playing field during its Presidency tenure has to be widened by the EU Commission itself: this is why the High Representative flew to Turkey in the first place. Borrell met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and other senior officials from the government in July, including Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who just returned from a visit to Libya.
Borrell and Çavuşoğlu’s initial remarks at the press conference after their meeting were lukewarm: the Turkish Foreign Minister reaffirmed that Ankara wants a series of concessions from the EU prior to taking deescalating steps in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis towards Greece and Cyprus. In its tit for tat diplomacy, Ankara wants visa liberalization and an update of the Customs Union Agreement here and now. Then, as Çavuşoğlu indicated, Turkey will be ready to embark on negotiations with Cyprus.
Borrell was in Greece and Cyprus last week taking the initial steps to mediate between Ankara, Athens and Nicosia to resolve the tensions over the hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Borrell aims to bring Greece, Turkey and Cyprus together.
Borrell omitted a visit to the Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akıncı during his visit to the island. Adding to the ambivalence, the EU diplomat later phoned Akıncı to express his regret.
New Migrant Deal ahead?
As aforementioned, Borrell’s Turkey visit agenda is packed: the Eastern Mediterranean Crisis tops the list on the side of the EU, while on the other hand, Ankara wants the Turkey-EU migration deal to be renegotiated.
Let’s focus on the latter: back when there was a Prime Minister post in Turkey and Ahmet Davutoğlu was still an AK Party heavyweight, he brokered the first “Migrant Deal” in 2016. The deal did almost halt the passage of irregular migrants from Turkey to the EU — but at what cost? As a consequence, many of the pillars of international refugee and asylum law have become defunct throughout Europe.
While Europe lost on the human rights values front, Turkey secured six billion Euros to spend on the welfare of Syrian refugees. Up until April 2020, the Turkish government completed contracts through its ministries for the funding of projects catering to the needs of the Syrian refugees to the tune of around 4.7 billion Euros. Out of this amount, around 3.4 billion Euros have been released and passed onto the projects managed by United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organizations in partnership with local groups.
Some of these projects have turned out to be silent movers and shakers, such as the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN), which provides cash assistance to 1.7 million refugees in Turkey. This is the largest humanitarian aid program financed by the EU with 1.8 billion Euros donated. Other programs, like educational funding for Syrian refugee children, have benefited around 650,000 pupils through schemes such as the “Conditional Cash Transfers for Education” (CCTE).
The new EU budget, or in other words, the medium- to long-term budget named the “Multiannual Financial Framework” (MFF), was much debated and discussed at the end of 2019, and it did not include financial aid to Turkey for refugees.
As things stood until recently, the ESSN was due to expire around March 2021 and the CCTE by just October 2020. The European Peoples’ Party in the European Parliament jumped to the aid of Turkey upon the EU Commission’s proposal, and parliamentarians from the EU budget committee gave the green light for the continuation of support to refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Taking the EU Commission’s proposal, Monika Hohlmeier from the EPP recommended the approval of the draft amending budget, and it was adopted on July 24. If the draft report is approved by the full house in an upcoming plenary session, 485 million Euros will be made available to Turkey for the continuation of the ESSN and CCTE.
As it may be discerned, the 485 million Euros in question is like a band-aid, salvaging only the ESSN and CCTE up to the end of 2021. But the MFF, or in other words, the new EU budget of 2021-27, will have to include much more than that. It will need to ensure the ESSN and CCTE for a longer term, and will need to add new comprehensive programs for Syrians and other refugees.
Obviously, there are many further financial hurdles ahead if a new EU-Turkey migrant deal is to be undertaken.
Ankara does not just complain about the inadequacy of available funds, but the whole procedure: according to Turkish officials, the EU is too bureaucratic, slow and reluctant to release funds. Moreover, they regard the expenses procured by international NGOs to be excessive, and would like to see less of their involvement or their replacement by local organizations. As for the EU, the presence of international organizations is essential to ensure efficiency and avoid corruption.
Back in 2016 as well, for the first migrant deal, Turkey accepted becoming the de facto border guard of the EU in exchange for other concessions: visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Turkish citizens, modernization of the EU-Turkey customs union, reacceleration of Turkey’s EU accession talks, and the endorsement of EU-Turkish cooperation for a “safe-zone” in Syria were in the package, as well.
None of the above materialized, let alone the settlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey in EU countries. Only around 25,000 Syrians have been accepted to EU countries within the framework of the resettlement scheme that was agreed to in that deal.
One of the reasons that the EU High Representative Borrell has kicked the ball to start the game between Germany, the EU and Turkey, among others, is the highly negatively-charged perceptions towards Ankara after the “almost” second migrant crisis in February 2020. On the night of February 27, Turkey lifted the sea and border controls in its land and maritime borders with Greece. Thousands of migrants headed towards the EU territory, but few were able to enter.
Ankara’s decision coincided with the killing of 34 members of the Turkish Armed Forces around Idlib, Syria’s last remaining active war zone — for the time being.
Memories of the migrants queuing before the Greek-Turkish border back in February are still on the minds of many across the EU: Germany’s political sphere has reportedly been particularly berserk and still holds that negative perception of Ankara. Merkel will have a hard time selling any deal with Turkey to both her domestic audience and Germany’s political brass alike. Let’s remember that 2021 is also an election time in Germany, and Merkel will go into “pension.” The iconic Chancellor of Germany has affirmed numerous times that she will be retiring in 2021, leaving politics for good.
Merkel’s hands are also quite tied because of France, as she has to have French President Emmanuel Macron’s backing in a number of critical issues during Germany’s EU Presidency. Relations between France and Turkey are at a low point of recent history due to the Libyan war. France is at odds with Turkey’s military involvement in Libya, having sided with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli against the offensive led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
During the press conference with Borrell, Çavuşoğlu singled out France, putting special emphasis on Paris in his criticisms. The Turkish Foreign Minister disparaged France for supplying arms to Haftar. Obviously, Ankara is more concerned with France’s involvement in Libya than either Greece or Cyprus at the moment. Is this a window of opportunity for a Turkey and Greece-Cyprus rapprochement? It might be, provided that the EU concedes to visa liberalization, the Customs Union, or both.
The Istanbul Convention may become the new rupture point between the European Union and Turkey. Gender rights are just starting to be a battleground in Turkey, Poland and beyond.
The seismic research vessel Oruç Reis is now parked inside the port of Antalya. The magic behind the rapprochement is named “Merkel” — but the recent spike of the Euro (and the U.S. dollar) vis-à-vis the Turkish lira may have to do with the sudden change of hearts in Ankara.
Prior to the Hagia Sophia controversy, Turkey was already a “hot potato” issue both for the EU Commission and Germany. Some serious brainstorming has already been going on regarding what to do with Turkey as far as some EU countries are concerned.
Ankara wants to play the “Leader of the Muslim world card” — but there is more to Hagia Sophia’s conversion than just that. Just like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “West Bank annexation” policy, Ankara banks on the strategy of “creating an international problem to overshadow debating domestic grievances and making national politics dependent on the existing government through isolation” strategy.
In the coming years, “Green Deal” policies for tackling the climate crisis will be the new contentious area between the EU and Turkey, replacing the traditional rupture point of human rights. It is not that Turkey will turn into a human rights bastion, but in its international relations, the EU has already backpedaled on prioritizing human rights.
Ankara has been readying for Germany’s EU Presidency in its own way. The first thing on Ankara’s agenda is brokering and concluding a new migrant agreement with the EU, and doing so by gnawing away some serious concessions. We may translate this as “money talks”.
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek, and according to the holy wisdom of Turkish politics, if “reconquering the Hagia Sophia” is becoming the motto, the target to redesign the political, electoral and legislative scene is looming over the horizon in Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and the European Union may indeed be back on track, but which track is that exactly? Just when I had given credit to EU-Turkey rapprochement, despite my usually pessimistic self, the usual flare-ups with Greece started up again.
On Turkey’s side, there is renewed interest building up a new foreign policy front: not just with regards to the EU and but also the U.S., and even Israel. If there is a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, why not between the EU and Turkey?
Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who resigned yesterday, is referred to as the “architect of Turkey’s recent policy in Libya, and the Aegean and the Mediterranean.” Now that he is gone, there might be room for Ankara to maneuver and revise its Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean policies to win hearts (but maybe not minds) in Brussels.
Ankara’s newfound warmth towards the EU must have to do with its economic contraction and the foreign currency crisis Turkey is rolling into. Engaging with Europe for a possible bailout would be easier and more internally marketable than an agreement with the IMF. Will Turkey’s post-corona relations with the EU be substantially different than China’s pragmatic engagement with Europe?
The race for vaccine in the EU’s case does look like the race for the antidote nationalism, too.
The world stopped with the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis between Turkey and Greece did not. In other words, the Greece-Turkey conflict is immune to COVID-19: even the coronavirus cannot smother the seething cauldron that is the Ankara-Athens axis.
After the current coronavirus crisis even if returning back to “normal” begins, it seems that the rest of the world will be like the “delivery guys” for Europe. In the new “normal,” Turkey’s citizens or not, regardless of nationality, the only non-Europeans entering the gates of the EU will be transport personnel (like drivers), residency holders and some very selective cases of business or service providers for some time to come.
While various countries including Turkey are now embarking on “corona diplomacy,” China was the first to begin attempts to win hearts and minds with direly needed aid. Beijing was the first to extend a helping hand to European countries suffering the worst from the pandemic— Italy and Spain—and to the economically most fragile one, Greece.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.