As European Union and Turkey leaders are set to meet in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna on Monday, there is little hope for reviving dormant relations, analysts have said.
The summit, hosted by Bulgarian prime minister and chairman of the EU, Boyko Borissov, will bring together European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The leaders will discuss a wide range of issues, including Turkey-EU relations, economics, trade, security and foreign policy.
Turkey will ask the European Union to lift all obstacles to its membership, and remains committed to the accession process, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday ahead of the summit.
Erdogan said he would also discuss what Turkey sees as the failure of the bloc to keep its promises on Syrian refugees.
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Turkey also expects updates from the EU on the customs union agreement, visa liberalisation, and acceleration of financial assistance to Syria, as well as concrete steps with regards to combating what Ankara calls “terrorism”.
But ongoing tensions in recent weeks have left observers pessimistic that questions raised at the summit will be answered.
“The two sides may make a joint noncommittal statement where they will seek cooperation and ensure dialogue is maintained, but there won’t be anything further,” Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European Studies at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
“Too much effort has gone into establishing this summit for it to be cancelled, but tensions on both sides are too great for there to be real progress,” explained Clarkson in reference to differences between the two sides on issues including gas exploration off the coast of Cyprus and Ankara’s military operations in Syria.
The ‘Merkozy’ approach
While the summit may ultimately succeed in maintaining dialogue between the two sides, there is little hope that the process of Turkey’s accession to the EU can be resumed to its 2005 state.
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) had enacted major reforms between 2002 and 2007, which were rewarded by the EU starting membership talks in 2005.
But hopes for inclusion into the EU fizzled soon after Merkel and then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy came to power, who, according to Turkish analyst Galip Dalay, “rejected the prospect of Turkey’s EU membership from an identity-centric perspective,” he wrote in the German Marshall Fund on 15 February.
Relations have since taken on a “Merkozy approach”, which has offered Ankara a special partnership with the EU instead of a full one. This newer formula aims to keep Turkey ”anchored in Europe” for the sake of pragmatic considerations, explained Dalay.
While Ankara has rejected this idea from the start, the Merkozy approach has continued to gain traction in Europe, as EU leaders criticise Turkey’s democracy and Europe becomes increasingly inward-looking.
“Turkey’s territorial influence-building in the Balkans and Mediterranean, its approach in Syria, and with its direct conflict with Cyprus and Greece, Turkey’s approach seems incompatible with the EU’s,” said Clarkson.
“The most both sides can hope for at this time is an association of partnership,” he added.
Simon Waldman, a researcher in Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London, agrees. Not only does he think that there is no longer space for Turkey as a member in the EU, but that the few spheres of common ground between Ankara and Brussels are now shrinking.
“If you were to think of the main enemies for Europe and Turkey, you will realise that they are completely different from each other. For Europe, it’s Russia and ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. For Turkey it’s the PKK [Kurdish Workers’ Party] and Gulen Movement.
“Even when it comes to economics, trade between Turkey and EU has stagnated for several years and that’s why Turkey has been looking for alternative partners in China, the Middle East and Russia,” he added.
A riddled path
In addition to this altered approach to EU-Turkey relations, several recent crises have left a riddled path for any progress in relations to take place.
Speaking to reporters on February 23, Borissov said that the Varna meeting will be “a heavy experience … loaded with expectations and tensions”.
Borissov’s comments came after the latest Turkey-EU crisis that erupted in mid-February when Ankara sent warships to prevent a drillship, contracted by the Greek-Cypriot administration, from reaching a gas exploration well located southeast of Cyprus.
Turkey had also arrested two Greek soldiers on March 2 for entering a military zone in the northern Turkish province of Edirne. They are waiting for their case to be heard.
On Thursday, the European Council condemned Turkey’s “illegal actions” toward Greece and Cyprus in a blistering denunciation and underlined “its full solidarity with Cyprus and Greece”.
The statement by the 28 European Union member states meeting in Brussels also called on Turkey to respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus to explore and exploit its natural resources in accordance with the EU and international law.
Ankara, on the other hand, does not recognise the exclusive economic zone the Greek-Cypriot administration unilaterally declared in the region, saying that Turkish-Cypriots have a stake in the island’s resources.
“Such wordings solely based on the Greek Cypriot and Greek claims are unacceptable and create an opportunity for some other countries to hide behind them as well,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement last week, adding that the EU cannot be an honest broker in the Cyprus dispute.
Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik said on Twitter on the European Council’s conclusions: “When solidarity takes over legality and equity, then no one can talk about legitimacy. Solidarity is meaningful only when it is legitimate.”
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s recent visit to Berlin for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel reflect an effort by Ankara to overcome a year of highly strained ties. But the remnants of this crisis still remain.
The Ankara-Berlin spat erupted last year after German local authorities stopped Turkish ministers speaking at meetings of supporters of Erdogan ahead of Turkey’s constitutional vote to expand presidential powers.
Ankara responded by telling Berlin that it must “learn to behave” if it wants to maintain relations.
In August, Erdogan caused consternation in Berlin by urging ethnic Turks in Germany to vote against both parties in Merkel’s governing coalition. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel responded by condemning Erdogan’s comments as an “unprecedented act of interference” in Germany’s sovereignty.
Analysts estimate that about 1.2 million people of Turkish origin will have the right to vote in the September elections.
While Turkey and the EU continue to cooperate against ISIL, the “terrorism” question has remained a divisive issue between the two sides.
Turkey’s current terrorism law has been used to detain thousands of people, including EU citizens, since the failed coup attempt in July 2016 and the reigniting of Ankara’s war with the separatist PKK.
As part of the migration deal agreed on between Ankara and the EU in March 2016, the EU offered Turks the option of visa-free travel to Europe, provided Turkey met 72 criteria.
Among the criteria is the EU’s demand that Turkey excludes acts in its current terrorism law that fall under freedom of speech in Europe.
Ankara has refused to change its terrorism law in line with the EU’s demand, however, saying that complying with the EU’s demand would weaken its hand against terrorism.
According to Waldman, the more realistic view of Turkey-EU relations is a diverging one. He says that with the EU and Turkey on two different strategic paths, there is little in common for a strong partnership to develop.
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