European foreign ministers will urge Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan today (18 July) to respect the law and human rights in dealing with defeated coup plotters, but have limited leverage over their strategic neighbour.
Diplomats said an EU line on Turkey would be agreed after ministers breakfast in Brussels with US Secretary of State John Kerry. He shares concern over Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn and will discuss Turkey’s role as an ally in Syria, in facing off with Russia and as gatekeeper on a migrant route to Europe.
What was to be a routine if busy meeting, to address before the summer break such simmering crises as Ukraine and Libya, African migration and the China’s maritime expansion, has been swept into a perfect storm as three major developments battered Brussels’ agenda in 48 hours on successive days last week:
— The accelerated formation of a new British government under Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday (13 July) and her choice of Brussels-baiting journalist and Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. He will brief uncomfortable counterparts on how Britain, one of the EU’s two main military powers, may cooperate on foreign policy once it leaves the Union. It will be the first high-level EU meeting for one of May’s new ministers.
— The killing of 84 people by a Tunisian-born local man who ploughed a truck along the seafront at Nice as France celebrated Bastille Day on Thursday (14 July), claimed by Syria-based Islamic State. Ministers will observe a minute’s silence for the victims and discuss, after the third major Islamist attack in France in 18 months and four months after bombers struck Brussels itself, how to cooperate against radicals at home and IS in the Middle East.
— And finally, on Friday, the military coup that crumbled when Erdoğan rallied his supporters onto the streets and secured the loyalty of a greater part of the security services.
Breakfast with Kerry
Kerry, who will meet his EU counterparts for two hours from 8 AM (0600 GMT), said in Luxembourg on Sunday (17 July) that the coup bid in NATO ally Turkey had not disrupted the US-led campaign against Islamic State, although Incirlik air base, used notably by the US and German air forces, was locked down for a time.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is expected to brief colleagues on Paris’s view of repeated IS assaults on its territory, said on Sunday there “questions” over whether Turkey, under Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted AK party, was a “viable” ally, referring to “suspicions” about Ankara’s motivations.
And he insisted European backing for Erdoğan against the coup was not a “blank cheque” for him to oppress his opponents.
Over the weekend, European Union leaders had voiced support for Erdoğan and the elected Turkish government against a shadowy uprising by parts of the armed force but, after years of growing alarm at Erdoğan’s bid to enhance his personal power and ignore or oppress opponents, they also urged him to respect the rule of law and the “checks and balances” of Turkey’s constitution.
EU migration deal
The EU faces a particularly tricky time with Turkey in the next three months, as it tries to finalise a deal struck in March to reward Ankara for preventing migrants from crossing to Greece by channelling up to €6 billion in aid to the 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, reviving EU accession talks and scrapping visas for Turks wishing to visit Europe.
European leaders have already bitten their tongues to stifle criticism of Erdoğan’s crackdown on ethnic Kurds, Turkish media and other dissent to arrange the bargain. But the visa waiver is still dependent on Ankara dropping its resistance to amending a counter-terrorism law – something not made easier by the coup – and on approval in the rights-minded European Parliament.
Turkish officials have warned that they could reopen the migration route if the EU fails to deliver its part of the deal.
The possible jailing soon of Kurdish lawmakers who were stripped of immunity and May, as well as a revival of the death penalty for the putschists as Erdoğan seemed ready to concede to a baying crowd on Sunday, would create major ructions. An end to executions is a sine qua non for even discussing EU membership.
Many EU lawmakers are uncomfortable about helping Erdoğan in order to shield Europe from a repeat of the arrival last year of a million migrants via Turkey.
European commissioner Guenther Oettinger, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who brokered the migration deal, said further human rights curbs would leave Erdoğan internationally isolated: “We will,” he said, “Continue our cooperation in strict accordance with the rule of law and with our values.”
But as Marc Pierini, a former EU envoy to Ankara, said: “There is no real obligation for the Turkish president to modify his course of reining in the judiciary, the media etc.” Now at think-tank Carnegie, Pierini said: “The EU political reflex will always be to talk about values – but values don’t matter much.”
Senior EU officials believe they do have leverage on Erdoğan as they appeal to him to respect the views of the half of the country which did not back him but also did not back the coup.
They argue that Ankara needs EU trade and investment as well as a strategic alliance in a region where it has few friends and also that the migrant deal was less critical to this year’s drop in arrivals than the sealing of Greece’s Balkan borders, which deterred people crossing from Turkey hoping to reach Germany.
At the same time, Europeans are reluctant to press Erdoğan too hard for fear that instability in Turkey, as demonstrated by the coup attempt, could be worse than the current situation:
“We must not jump to conclusions and lash out,” a senior EU official told Reuters.