Protocol scandal symbolises the state of EU-Turkey relations, EU lawmaker says

MEP Sergey Lagodinsky during European Parliament plenary session on the dangerous escalation and the role of Turkey in the Eastern-Mediterranean. [EP/Daina Le Lardic]

We shouldn’t place ‘Sofa-gate’ into the epicentre of a plenary debate in the European Parliament, but rather discuss how to rebuild relations with Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who no longer has a commitment toward a European future, a leading MEP told EURACTIV.

According to MEP Sergey Lagodinsky (Greens, Germany), who spoke to EURACTIV, the EU leadership’s Ankara visit had become the latest example of bungled EU foreign policy efforts.

Turkey and the EU had blamed each other on Thursday (8 April) for seating arrangements that left European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen without a chair during a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this week.

A blame game followed between Brussels and Ankara, but also inside the EU institutions, over who messed up the diplomatic protocol and seating arrangements.

The scandal drew complaints from across Europe over what was seen as only the latest example of bungled EU foreign policy efforts.

Only last month, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell’s controversial visit to Moscow had raised eyebrows among EU diplomats and received heavy criticism after the EU’s chief diplomat became part of a show in which he was humiliated by his Russian hosts.

“Incidents like this have bad optics and this is something that also coincides with bad optics of the EU-Turkey relationship as a whole,” said Lagodinsky, who is a member of the European Parliament’s delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.

'Sofa-gate' brings more headaches for the EU

The protocol scandal that overshadowed the EU leaders’ recent visit to Turkey keeps unfolding, raising questions about Council President Charles Michel’s reaction, but also about the EU’s consistency in asking Ankara to adhere to the Istanbul Convention.

Several European Parliament groups had demanded an investigation into how von der Leyen was left standing while Michel took a seat and asked for a plenary debate with both leaders later this month.

“Following this incident, we shouldn’t place the sofa into the epicentre of a plenary debate – I don’t think that Ms. von der Leyen has to justify why she wasn’t given a chair,” Lagodinsky said.

Instead, he added, the debate should be about the specific goals of the visit, whether they have been met and whether those goals and achievements correspond to the expectations of the EU and the European Parliament.

Asked whether the Turkey visit as a whole had been a bad idea, Lagodinsky said that the discussion should refocus on the fact that Turkey has no desire for an improvement in relations and resolving issues pinpointed by the EU side.

“The point is not the sofa, the point should also be: Where do we stand in our mutual relationship? Where’s the respect? And how does this play into human rights and women’s rights, especially after the Istanbul Convention disaster that we have witnessed a week before.”

“I wouldn’t exaggerate the protocol issue, but, of course, it symbolises the underlying problems that we have,” the MEP added.

The meeting with Erdoğan came at a delicate moment as relations between Brussels and Ankara were severely strained last year as tensions spiralled over Turkish gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

The EU is eyeing improved cooperation after a diplomatic offensive by Erdoğan over the past few months aimed at mending ties between the neighbours.

The bloc has been encouraged by Turkey resuming talks with Greece over a disputed maritime border and moves to restart peace efforts over divided EU member Cyprus.

Brussels has shelved sanctions against Ankara and is offering economic and diplomatic incentives – but insists Erdoğan must maintain the current calm and engage constructively on key issues.

Borrell’s recent report presented to EU leaders before last month’s European Council summit had again suggested adopting a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach towards Ankara, including a modernisation of the customs union, visa liberalisation and more money for migration management or economic sanctions.

LEAK: Borrell report suggests new carrot-and-stick approach for Turkey

Turkey will be invited to follow a path of dialogue and reap some economic benefits, or move further away from Europe and face consequences, the EU’s chief diplomat wrote in his Turkey report, set to be discussed by EU leaders later this week, according to a draft report seen by EURACTIV.

“What I criticise in the [Borrell] report is that there is, among the conditions, no mentioning of the domestic situation,” Lagodinsky told EURACTIV. “You can offer as many carrots as you want, if you condition them right.”

“We can talk about visa liberalisation or other issues if there is tangible and clear progress on the domestic front – and from an accession candidate that’s not too much to ask,” he added.

Germany had tried to play the role of a mediator in the Greek-Turkish standoff but was criticised for leading the camp of those member states who opposed sanctions against Turkey.

Asked whether he thinks German economic and domestic considerations were the main obstacle for a clear position of Berlin towards Ankara, Lagodinsky said he “wouldn’t see Germany’s position on the issue in black and white”.

“It’s not just about the diasporas we have, it’s not just the mutual economic relations or the refugees – we’re neighbours, and we’re intertwined in a very specific and interdependent way”.

He pointed out that a large part of Germany’s Turkish diaspora is of Kurdish origin.

“It can also be interpreted the other way around, namely that the German government neglects the wish of large parts of the diaspora,” he added.

The German Greens could be catapulted into government later this year, as polls suggest they have good chances to beat Merkel’s ruling conservative bloc.

Asked what he thinks would be realistic for future relations, the MEP said what he “does not see is a commitment to a common European future, because a common European future can only exist between democracies – and that’s the problem”.

“If we write off the accession process, if we write off any kind of way of convergence between the European model and the Turkish model, then we don’t have much room for manoeuvre to talk about domestic policy and its shortcomings,” he said, referring to Turkey’s currently frozen EU accession perspective.

“The future of the relationship depends essentially on how Turkey continues to conduct itself in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Niklas Novaky, research officer for EU security and defence policy at the Wilfried Martens Centre in Brussels, told EURACTIV.

According to him, boosting economic links, high-level dialogue, people-to-people contacts, and cooperation on irregular migration could help create a more positive atmosphere.

“But, generally speaking, the relationship is likely to remain tense for the time being – as long as the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean remains unchanged, EU-Turkey relations won’t improve dramatically,” Novaky added.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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