The European Council meeting — which, among other things, discussed Turkey and the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean — offered a fragile, positive agenda in EU-Turkey relations and kicked the can down the road to the June meeting, as widely anticipated. The most important items of the positive agenda are as follows: additional financial aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey; the modernisation of the EU-Turkey customs union; high-level dialogue with Turkey on issues of common concerns and interests; and increasing people-to-people contact mechanisms.
This meeting once again clearly illustrated the gap between the official framework of Turkish-EU relations, norm-based accession framework, and the prevailing nature of the relations, which is primarily driven by the logic of geopolitics and economy, along with the necessity to work with Turkey to ease the migratory and refugee pressure on Europe. This gap between the official and actual frameworks of Turkish-EU relations creates an expectation-reality gap in the relations and leads to glaring contradictions in different European institutions’ approach towards Turkey. For instance, though the European Parliament sees Turkey as a candidate country — therefore adopting a much more normative language towards it — the European Council primarily treats Turkey as a major geopolitical player rather than a candidate country.
Apart from this framework-related crisis, this summit led to the following results.
First, given the increasing level of democratic decline and authoritarianism in Turkey, the outcome of this summit was relatively positive news for the government, with Ankara welcoming the outcome of the meeting. However, despite the emphasis of the positive agenda, there is not much to offer in terms of content, as even the issue of financial aid for refugees in Turkey will not be a straightforward process because the EU Commission does not have money earmarked for this item. In fact, the money has to come from the member states, which is another messy process. Plus, despite the reference to the custom union modernisation, nothing concrete will come out on this front in the foreseeable future. This process requires many legal and regulatory changes, including changes to Turkish public bidding laws and regulations. Ankara is unlikely to implement these legal and regulatory requirements anytime soon. While Ankara treats the Custom Union modernisation as an economic dossier, the EU treats it as a political one. This will prove to be a major problem as we tackle this subject further.
Second, within this fragile positive agenda, geopolitical calculations played a primary role, especially around: de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean and exploratory talks between Ankara and Athens. The summit tried to reinforce this process. In this respect, if materialised, the Eastern Mediterranean conference can further direct the focus of the dispute towards dialogue and diplomacy in a multilateral setting and away from bilateral confrontation between Ankara and Athens. In the end, political expediency will require situating Turkish-Greek bilateral engagements within a multilateral framework.
Third, given the prevailing feeling of isolation in Ankara and uncertainty hanging over Turkish-US relations, a high level dialogue format will appeal to the government, particularly if this dialogue is reinforced through visits by the European Council’s President and the EU Commission’s President to Ankara, which would carry symbolic significance.