A lot is happening on the European Union-Turkey front — and simultaneously, nothing is happening.
What's behind this paradox?
For example, let’s take last week’s developments: July 13 was silently an important date for Turkey, as the European Union Commission Foreign Ministers meeting took place then. As early as a month or so back, colleagues from EU countries were quizzing me about the event: “What does Turkey think about the July 13 EU Foreign Ministers’ meeting?” I had no answer because neither Turkey in general, nor Ankara in particular had spared even a minute to think about it. The Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque added “spice” to the meeting’s agenda, but it was already well-known that Turkey would be the foremost discussion topic. The “second refugee crisis” in March 2020 and Germany’s EU Council Presidency starting on July 1 made it imperative that relations with Turkey were discussed and decided.
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, so this meeting was really a milestone. And just three days before the meeting, the ruling on the Hagia Sophia was announced and signed into a decree by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
A lot was due to happen with the Hagia Sophia move darkening the already-bleak horizon. But what really happened after that?
A big nothing.
The EU foreign ministers warned Turkey of “new punitive measures” - provided that Ankara does not back off from “unilateral actions” in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
The High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell made the following statement after the meeting in Brussels:
“We stress that the Turkish unilateral actions, in particular in the Eastern Mediterranean, which run counter to EU interest, to the sovereign rights of EU member states and to international law, must come to an end.”
Borrell’s emphasis was on the clashes of will in the Eastern Mediterranean, but he also touched upon the Hagia Sophia issue:
"This decision will inevitably fuel mistrust, promote renewed divisions between the religious communities, and undermine our efforts for dialogue and cooperation. There was broad support to call on Turkish authorities to urgently reconsider and reverse this decision.”
But the address who set the eventual tone was Germany, as they hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas affirmed:
“We need a dialogue with Turkey, but we have also made it clear that where Turkey particularly affects the interests of European Union member states, for example with regard to drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, we have clear expectations that there are positive signals from Turkey.” Maas also gave a “deadline,” saying, “I think we have now a short time window up until September and by then at the latest we need understandings on the Eastern Mediterranean, on maritime law issues concerning Greece but also Libya, in order to continue this dialogue with Turkey. Turkey wants to speak about issues such as customs union, visa liberalization — things for which I currently don’t see a basis to make progress with Turkey.”
For the time being, Germany has said "first things first" — meaning that they will first wrap up the agreement on the EU's long-term budget and the coronavirus crisis economic recovery fund. The EU Summit focusing on these issues is still ongoing and the bloc must agree on both the budget and the economic recovery fund before the August break.
In August, the EU will take a breath — or rather, it will catch its breath, and try to put a pause on dealing with tough issues until September.
And one of these tough issues will be Turkey. Then, the swords will be out and the EU will decide whether it will continue on with softer stances regarding Turkey, or really get rough with sanctions and other approaches with more of a bite.
That means that Germany will not have summer break, and it will try its best behind the scenes to make Ankara give up some concessions and back off to a certain degree.
This is why a lot is happening between Turkey and the EU, even though it seems at the same time that nothing is happening.