Politico: Europe fakes Turkish delight
Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast offers everything Europe’s political elite expect from a good summit: an exotic location, breathtaking views and (most important) casks of fine wine.
If only Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hadn’t shown up.
For the EU’s top brass, the irascible Turkish leader was the proverbial fly in the summit soup at Monday’s dinner meeting with Council President Donald Tusk, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose country holds the bloc’s rotating presidency.
The dinner, held in a 19th century château that once served as the summer residence for Bulgaria’s royals, fulfilled the low expectations both sides had for it.
“It was a good meeting,” insisted Juncker late Monday, as he complained about his celiac plexus, which forced him to leave the session with Erdoğan at one point. “We were able to talk in all frankness and openness … We will have, as we have in the past, many many meetings [to give us] the chance to resolve the problems between Turkey and Europe.”
Truth be told, about the only thing Ankara and Europe agree on these days is that they don’t agree on much. From Erdoğan’s dismantling of Turkey’s democratic institutions in the wake of the 2016 attempt to overthrow him to Turkey’s recent assault on Kurdish forces in Syria, EU leaders worry that Ankara has become more of a long-term problem than a partner.
And yet both sides remain bound by a reality as acute as Juncker’s abdominal pain: Mutual dependence.
Europe needs Turkey to keep alive its two-year old refugee deal, which has been crucial in helping to stem the flow of Syrian refugees to the EU. The EU has already committed about €3 billion to help Turkey manage its refugee population of about 3.5 million and another €3 billion is on the way.
At a time when populists from Palermo to Stockholm are gaining ground on the issue of migration, Europe’s leaders, especially Germany’s Angela Merkel, want Brussels to do whatever it takes to preserve the arrangement.
What Erdoğan gets from the EU can be summed up in a single word: survival.
Forget Erdoğan’s incendiary rhetoric about Europe and the anti-Turkish “terrorists” he accuses Germany and others of harboring. The cold reality is that Turkey is almost completely dependent on the EU to keep its economy afloat.
The EU accounts for about half of Turkish exports. With total trade of more than €130 billion between the two spheres, Turkey’s trade with the EU is more than five times greater than that with its next largest partner, China.
What’s more, the EU accounts for about two-thirds of the foreign investment into Turkey.
Turkey’s corporate sector, meanwhile, is heavily reliant on European investors to finance its sizable debt, a risk recently highlighted by the International Monetary Fund.
Put simply, the Turkish economy would implode without Europe. Such an economic crisis is the one thing that might actually cost Erdoğan his power in the short term.
“Erdoğan’s biggest vulnerability is the economy,” said Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey with Chatham House. “No one can replace Europe and he knows that.”
That helps to explain why Erdoğan was so eager to hold Monday’s meeting. The two sides last met 10 months ago. Given the deterioration in the relationship since then, there was little to justify such a high-level gathering.
The prospect of breathing new life into Turkey’s decades-old bid for EU accession remains as remote as ever.
Erdoğan’s systematic undermining of Turkey’s judiciary and crackdown on civil society mean Europe isn’t even willing to discuss changes to its customs union with Ankara.
The Europeans, in particular Juncker, were reluctant to offer Erdoğan a stage in Varna. As with their last encounter with the Turkish president, the EU leaders demanded the gathering be called a “leaders’ meeting,” rather than a summit.
Nonetheless, Erdoğan appears to have gotten exactly what he wanted from the exercise. Before arriving in Bulgaria, he insisted “EU membership remains our strategic goal.”
Such comments, though completely inconsistent with Ankara’s actions in recent years, are aimed at offering Turkey’s elites and financial markets a flicker of hope that, despite the recent turmoil, the country remains dedicated to the West.
Don’t bank on it.
“It’s a fence-mending exercise, but one that’s not meant to resolve the fundamental differences that plague the relationship between Turkey and the EU,” Hakura said.
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