The future of EU-Turkey relations was an agenda item at Thursday’s (19 October) EU summit dinner, which was still ongoing at the time this article was published.
A couple of hours earlier, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov gave a preview of the exchanges he expected.
The European Commission has invited EU governments to consider changing its relationship with Turkey after a referendum earlier this year that handed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping powers, leading to purges, the closure of media outlets and imprisonment of journalists.
Austria’s government has repeatedly said that Turkey should not be a member of the EU and that accession negotiations should be stopped.
In the lead up to the September German election, Merkel said “the fact is clear that Turkey should not become an EU member”. She also said she will talk to EU member states and seek a “joint position” on this.
There was not expected to be consensus for stopping the accession negotiations, but there were reports before the dinner that leaders expressed a flurry of ideas for how to punish Turkey.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested cutting pre-accession funds for Ankara.
The Bulgarian prime minister spoke to journalists while the summit talks were still ongoing. Borissov has the habit of leaving the meeting room and then returning. One journalist referred to Merkel’s proposal and asked Borissov what the Bulgarian position was.
“In public one can say what the majority wants to hear, and the anti-Turkish thesis wins elections,” Borissov said, without mentioning Merkel’s name. He added that Bulgaria is in a different situation, since Turkey is both the EU and Bulgaria’s largest neighbour.
He said that he told other leaders, including UK Prime Minister Theresa May, with whom he held a bilateral meeting earlier on Thursday, that the EU-Turkey deal for stemming the flow of migrants from Turkey to nearby Greek islands, should be preserved. Borissov said that May shared the same opinion.
This is not the first time that Bulgaria public opposes freezing or cutting Turkey’s EU accession negotiations.
What is new is that Bulgaria’s positions are now being amplified. The country will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 January 2018.
“During our presidency definitive breaking of accession negotiations should not be mentioned,” Borissov said.
‘Imagine hundreds of thousands of migrants’
He said that some of the journalists who were present were reporting only seven or eight months ago from Harmanli, a Bulgarian city close to the Turkish border, and from other places where the influx of migrants was in the thousands.
“But imagine a few hundred thousand migrants and what will happen to our country,” he said.
Bulgaria has presented itself as vulnerable because of migration, also because migrants may remain stranded there for a long time since other countries along the Western Balkan route have now sealed their borders.
“Up to now, Turkey strictly abides by the agreement. President Erdoğan stands by his word in this respect, and we have zero migration. So my position will be: to respect the EU-Turkey agreement, not to cut [accession] negotiations, to use all the leverage we have to improve relations,” Borissov said.
Borissov added that it was “of course ridiculous” to talk about Turkey EU accession today, but repeated that the relations with Turkey needed to be preserved.
He also considered the geopolitical consequences of severing ties with Turkey, hinting that this may prompt Ankara to reject NATO and seek other alliances. Inside NATO, Turkey is criticised for having bought Russia S-400 air defence batteries.
“To those who so easily speak about Turkey, I ask if we decide today that Turkey is our main enemy, and we cut relations, then what do we do about the southern flank of NATO? Bulgaria will become the southern flank of NATO. Can we withstand, Bulgaria, the pressure that would come from the other side?”
Borissov went on to say that the entire defensive conception of Bulgaria and “the Union” [he didn’t say EU or NATO] would crumble down in such a scenario.
“And what would happen if Turkey passes to the opposite camp? Eighty million population, a one-million army, 560,000 at our border. Those politicians who say Turkey should disappear, they may win elections, but they cannot win a war. This is why we [in Bulgaria] prefer to think with our heads, instead of saying what would be liked more publicly”, he said.
Asked by EURACTIV if he spoke the same language to EU leaders, Borissov said he was careful when speaking with journalists, and much more outspoken with his colleagues at the summit table.
Speaking to journalists after the dinner, Merkel called “unacceptable” the human rights situation in Turkey, adding that EU leaders had asked their executive arm to look at cutting pre-accession aid to Ankara in a “responsible way”.
She also said she did not foresee talks with Ankara on expanding a customs union with the EU.
A diplomatic source said this morning (20 October) that the dinner discussion was long, that strong concern about the human rights situation was expressed, but no decision was taken, and the Commission with tasked with proposing options to cut an re-orient funds, allocated to Turkey under its accession package.