The Varna summit held yesterday (26 March) between the leaders of EU institutions and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ended without concrete results, but also without new scandals. Its host, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, said Varna could become e permanent venue for such talks.
The summit took the form of a working dinner with European Union President Donald Tusk and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker in Bulgaria with a litany of issues clouding their discussions.
Before the summit, Erdoğan made a tour in Northern Turkey and delivered several speeches with clearly anti-EU rhetoric. In particular, Turkey’s strongman blames the West for hosting what he calls terrorists. Turkey and the EU differ on the definition on terrorism. Ankara calls terrorists all those perceived as enemies of Erdoğan’s regime, such as Kurds or followers of the preacher Fetullah Gülen.
The state of emergency in Turkey continues since the coup attempt in 2016 and mass purges are ongoing on perceived opponents. Independent media have been closed and many journalists put in jail. Also, Turkey is conducting military operations against Kurds in northern Syria which raise eyebrows in Europe.
In Varna, some 120 journalists saw a different Erdoğan, who spoke a more appeasing language. “We hope that we have left a very difficult period behind in Turkey-EU relations”, said Erdoğan, who at the end of the presser, said according to translation “Let’s build together a prosperous Europe. I approach everyone with love and respect”.
— ANADOLU AGENCY (ENG) (@anadoluagency) March 26, 2018
However he also stressed: “We don’t want rambling or unfair criticisms on sensitive issues like the fight against terror. We expect strong support.”
In term of concrete results, Tusk said the leaders’ meeting had made little tangible headway.
“In terms of concrete solutions, we did not reach a concrete compromise today but I still hope it will be possible in the future,” Tusk told the journalists.
Tusk said improved relations would depend on progress on issues including the rule of law and press freedom as well as Syria.
He also stressed that on migration and support for refugees, EU and Turkey remain strong partners.
An EU-Turkey agreement of 18 March 2016 promises Turkey, who is hosting 3,5 million Syrian refugees, €3 billion in aid, with a second €3 billion tranche in case the first one would not suffice. On 14 March the Commission approved the disbursement of the second tranche as well.
Tusk said he “sincerely thanks” Turkey and the Turkish people for hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees. (Speaking later, Erdoğan said that Turkey is also hosting one million refugees from Iraq.)
He reminded that Turkey had committed to upholding the highest standards of democracy. He said the EU understood Turkey’s need to deal effectively with security after the attempted coup, but added “we are concerned that some methods=ds used undermine fundamental freedoms and the rule of law”.
Tusk expressed concern of Turkish actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus says that Turkey has breached “international law” after Ankara’s warships blocked operations to explore for gas in the island’s politically sensitive waters.
The Council President also raised the issue of the two Greek soldiers who inadvertently crossed the border due to bad weather and were arrested in Turkey.
He also said EU leaders had expressed concern over Turkey’s military actions in Syria, in particular in Afrin.
Juncker said the summit was one of “mixed feelings but not mixed messages”, adding: “It was a good meeting because as this is the normal principle between big democracies, we were able to talk in all frankness and openness.”
— European Commission ???????? (@EU_Commission) March 26, 2018
Regarding the Greek soldiers, Juncker said he had confidence in the Turkish side “to solve that in the best way”, and to free them for the Orthodox Christmas (6 to 9 April in Greece).
.@JunckerEU #VarnaSummit: “#Turkey is a strategic partner. Focus on what unites us: Energy, anti-terrorism, migration. Future options are open. Turkish institutions strong enough to end emergency state. Hope that Turkish justice will release the two Greek soldiers for Easter”. pic.twitter.com/1bUrs9COM0
— Margaritis Schinas (@MargSchinas) March 26, 2018
Juncker stressed EU and Turkey should concentrate on what unites them, stressing the importance of the Southern Gas Corridor, a pipeline across Turkish territory designed to bring Azeri gas to Europe by 2020.
Juncker and Borissov praised Turkey for abiding by the migration deal. Borissov said that Borissov experienced “zero migration pressure” as a result of the deal.
Erdoğan thanked Borissov, whom he called his “great friend”, for hosting the meeting, and said he hoped the stage of bad relations between the EU and Turkey are left behind. He said that Turkey wanted to progress faster toward its goal of becoming an EU member.
The Turkish president said he expected the second €3 billion tranche to be released soon, and called for visa liberalisation.
Last month Turkey said it had fulfilled the 72 criteria for visa-free travel and Erdoğan told reporters that the necessary paperwork had been sent to the European Commission.
Erdoğan said he told the EU leaders that it was “necessary to complete their work at once” on the issue.
Erdoğan also said Turkey was looking forward for the start of discussions on his country upgrade in the EU’s Customs Union.
Regarding terrorism, Erdoğan said his country’s operations contributed beyond its borders to the security of Europe and should not trigger any criticism.
He warned “certain members of the EU” not to be overly critical of his country and said he had tabled in written form information concerning the exploration of gas in the Cyprus economic zone.
Borissov used the media attention to hit at his domestic rival, the Bulgarian president Rumen Radev.
The prime minister said he had raised all the issues raised by civil society, including the need of Turkish compensations for the Thracian Bulgarians (in 2013, after the Second Balkan War, 300,000 Bulgarians from territories lost to Turkey became subject to ethnic cleansing. 20,000 to 30,000 were killed by the Turkish army and bashi-bouzouk, the rest sought refuge in the Bulgarian mainland. It is estimated that their descendants are entitled to compensations to the tune of $20 billion.)
Thracian Bulgarians (in 2013, after the Second Balkan War, 300,000 Bulgarians from territories lost to Turkey became subject to ethnic cleansing. 20,000 to 30,000 were killed by the Turkish army and bashi-bouzouk, the rest sought refuge in the Bulgarian mainland. It is estimated that their descendants are entitled to compensations to the tune of $20 billion.)
He said that in return, Erdoğan raised issues such as the rights for the rights of emigrants (those ethnic Turks who were forced to leave Bulgaria as a result of ethnic cleansing in 1989, the last year of communism), the properties of the mufti, the cultural monuments etc.
“Without mixing up this leaders’ meeting with bilateral relations, as a Bulgarian politician did in a brutal way (he didn’t mention Radev’s name), I think the foreign ministries with the relevant committees can find a solution to those problems”, Borissov said.
Erdoğan made no mention of bilateral problems in his statements.