Author: JACOPO BARIGAZZI
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and EU leaders took a tentative step on Thursday towards normalizing relations — although a full diplomatic reset is still a long way off.
It is the first face-to-face meeting between top Brussels officials and Erdoğan since he narrowly won the vote in April on giving him extra powers. Relations have soured badly over the Turkish president’s increasingly authoritarian actions but both sides have an interest in cooling tensions. At stake for Ankara are relations with its largest trading partner while Brussels needs smoother dialogue with a NATO country that is essential for European stability.
Erdoğan had a 40-minute meeting in Brussels with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, followed by a further half hour with Juncker. The meeting seems partly to have defused tensions. “The EU and Turkey must and will continue to cooperate,” said a European Commission spokesperson adding, “major issues of common interest [have been] discussed in detail” in a “good, constructive atmosphere.”
After the meeting, Tusk tweeted that “we discussed the need to cooperate. I put the question of human rights in the centre of our discussions.”
Erdoğan also met the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, Thursday morning and later in the day, on the margins of a NATO summit, he was scheduled to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Expectations for a major reset for European-Turkish relations remain low, however, because of major differences between Ankara and Brussels, notably over Erdoğan’s increasingly repressive regime and the deterioration of human rights and democracy in the country. “On paper the meeting is only an occasion to resume talking,” said a senior EU official.
Speaking to reporters at Ankara Esenboğa Airport Wednesday, before leaving for Brussels, Erdoğan offered both olive branch and defiance. “We don’t aim to break away from the EU. But the EU cannot see Turkey as a beggar at its door,” he said.
Relations began to deteriorate after an attempted coup in Turkey last July followed by a government crackdown on opponents, judges and journalists.
In the lead up to the April referendum on changes to the constitution to consolidate the power of the presidency, relations hit a low point when Erdoğan accused Germany and other European countries of “Nazi-like” practices for blocking Turkish ministers from campaigning in Turkish ex-pat communities.
Subsequently, the Turkish government prevented a German parliamentary delegation from visiting Incirlik Air Base, in the South of the country, where about 260 German soldiers are stationed as part of the international coalition against Islamic State in Syria. On her arrival at the NATO summit in Brussels Thursday, Merkel said if they weren’t granted access, Germany would consider withdrawing the troops. She is set to raise the issue with Erdoğan at their meeting, the chancellor’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a press conference.
Add to that Ankara’s plans to restore capital punishment (“the reddest of all red lines,” said Juncker earlier this month) and stalled talks over Turkey’s EU accession and it is clear a full rapprochement is not on the cards. “The EU side might make some encouraging noises but nothing more than that,” says a EU senior diplomat from Southern Europe.