Acrimony dominated a high-level Turkish-European Union meeting as both sides exchanged barbs in Ankara at a meeting that was anticipated to be a sign of improving bilateral ties.
The “High-Level Political Dialogue Meeting” was reconvened for the first time in 18 months.
EU foreign affairs commissioner, Federica Mogherini, accompanied by Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, sat down for talks Thursday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
But simmering tensions between Ankara and Brussels came to the fore. “A strong Turkey means a democratic Turkey,” Mogherini said at the joint news conference with Hahn and Cavusoglu.
“We expressed our strong concerns about the detention of several prominent academics and civil society representatives, including those recently detained,” Mogherini added.
Last Friday 13 prominent academics and civil society figures were detained in connection with the 2016 nationwide anti-government protests known as the Gezi movement.
Mogherini caused further Turkish angst, calling for this month’s European Court ruling to release from jail Selahattin Demirtas to be respected. Demirtas is a former leader of the politically pro-Kurdish HDP and has been jailed for more than 18 months on terrorism charges.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the European court ruling saying Turkey is “not bound” by the decision, even though it is a member of the court.
Cavusoglu hit back against EU commissioners who condemned Turkey’s lack of progress to join the union.
“There’s no use in making statements that exclude Turkey from the EU accession process or denying its candidacy,” he said.
Ankara’s EU membership bid has been frozen for more than a decade by members who oppose it, saying it is not European or because of concern over the deterioration of human rights, and other reasons.
Analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, suggests Thursday’s strong language by EU commissioners underlines Brussels’ approach to Turkey.
“I think unlike the United States, where there is a loud and inconclusive debate on what to do with Turkey, carrot or stick,” he said, “The Europeans have long decided to keep Erdogan at arm’s length, be nice to him, but don’t give him anything and I don’t think that is going to change.”
Areas of common ground were discussed, focusing on opposition to Washington’s new Iranian sanctions, the Syrian civil war, and the refugee situation in Turkey.
Turkey hosts more than three million Syrian refugees, and since a 2016 EU agreement, Ankara has been instrumental in ending an exodus of migrants into Europe.
Analysts say Erdogan reminds Brussels about Turkey’s importance in preventing Syrian regime forces from overrunning the last rebel stronghold in Idlib.
“A diplomatic victory that we should credit to Mr. Erdogan, he has successfully built a coalition to defend Idlib against Assad attack,” said Yesilada.
Ankara’s increasing regional importance has created the basis of a new relationship with Brussels. “This is actually defined as a transactional relationship, which enables keeping dialogue and cooperation going on issues of strategic importance to both,” wrote columnist Barcin Yinanc Thursday in the Hurriyet Daily News.
Cavusolgu also vented frustration with Brussels over the refugee deal. “We made an agreement for migration. In that agreement we agreed to open five chapters (EU membership chapters), then a decision comes out against opening new chapters. This is hypocrisy, there’s no explanation for this,” he said, referring to the 2016 migration agreement.
Ankara maintains part of the refugee deal included in a Brussel’s commitment to expedite Turkey’s membership application with the unblocking of some of 35 membership chapters needed to be completed.
Ankara routinely threatens to end the migration deal in disputes with Brussels, but analysts suggest Turkey is not the threat to Europe it once was.
“I don’t think Turkey can unleash the refugees. Those days are over, thanks to Hungary, Slovenia, closing their borders to refugees, they will not reach the core of Europe,” said Yesilada.
But he says Brussels has an interest in Turkey’s stability given the economic and financial challenges facing the country.
Continued dialogue between Brussels and Ankara is seen by some as necessary in mitigating the current human rights crackdown in Turkey.
“There are a handful of (Turkish) officials who believe there is still room, even if very small, to register some improvement (in human rights),” wrote columnist Yinanc. “Even changing one little sentence in a draft law can at least limit the damage on rights violations and even that is an important improvement in the current suffocating circumstances, they probably think,” she continued.
Analyst Yesilada claims last week’s arrest of academics and civil rights figures reveals the European Union still has a positive effect.
“You have to remember 12 of the 13 arrested have been released within 24 hours. Had it not been for the EU pressure, all those academics would have been kept in prison for a very long while.”