The EU’s hopes of a rapprochement with Turkey and Russia have been rebuffed. But these diplomatic defeats have been long in the making, writes Robert Ellis.
Robert Ellis is a Turkey analyst and international advisor at RIEAS (Research Institute for European and American Studies) in Athens.
The EU’s attempts to foster a positive dialogue with two of the most immediate threats to its security, Russia and Turkey, have failed.
When the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, visited Moscow in February, he was met with derision. As Borrell stated in his blog, the intention was to address “through principled diplomacy” the rapid worsening of the EU’s relations with Russia.
Also, he aimed to express the EU’s strong condemnation of the poisoning, arrest and sentencing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the related mass arrests of thousands of demonstrators.
Good intentions aside, Borrell’s visit seriously backfired. His efforts were rewarded with “an aggressively staged” press conference with Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov and the expulsion of three EU diplomats.
The EU’s attempts at drawing closer to Turkey seemed to be faring better, until last week’s “sofa-gate” gaffe threatened to derail them.
Signs seemed positive at a January meeting between Borrell and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu.
Here the intention was to take stock of EU-Turkey relations and discuss a way forward on the basis of mutual strategic interests and the development of “a cooperative and reciprocal relationship anchored in common values and principles”.
The was an extension of the EU’s willingness to achieve a “constructive dialogue” and “positive agenda” with Turkey as declared by German Chancellor Angela Merkel after a summit of EU leaders in October.
Then, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held a New Year video conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from which she came away convinced that Turkey saw its future in Europe and “wanted to turn a new page” in its relations with the EU.
Things were going so well, European Council President Charles Michel and von der Leyen raised the possibility of a visit to Ankara in another video call ahead of another EU summit in March.
Erdoğan responded that he expected the summit would yield a positive result and mentioned that an update of the 2016 migrant deal could form the basis for a positive agenda.
In its statement, the European Council obliged, declaring its readiness to engage with Turkey “in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner” to enhance cooperation in a number of areas of common interest, principally a modernisation of the Customs Union together with the continuation of financing for Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Turkey’s gross violation of human rights was treated in an offhand manner, relegated to “dialogue”, which, as the statement pointed out, remains an integral part of the EU-Turkey relationship.
No notice was apparently given to an appeal made by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch prior to the summit to put human rights at the centre of EU-Turkey relations. A similar appeal made by three MEPs and 29 organisations, seemed also to fall on deaf ears.
Then, ahead of last week’s visit to Ankara, Michel and von der Leyen received an open letter from 20 human rights groups, calling on them to prioritise the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights.
Von der Leyen then stated the aim of the visit was to give the EU-Turkey relationship a new momentum, and it must be said they succeeded. But perhaps not in the way they intended.
In an awkward moment now known as “sofa-gate”, the Commission president was literally left standing at the start of the meeting with Erdoğan.
Afterwards, von der Leyen said the “interesting” meeting had covered economic ties, high-level dialogues, people-to-people contacts and refugees and migration. She also said that Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention to protect women against violence was “the wrong signal”. But it’s unclear whether this view was expressed from the sofa or just at the press conference.
Turkey has put the blame on the EU for the seating gaffe but by any standards it surely represented a lapse of the courtesy Turkey normally affords foreign visitors.
Italian prime minister Mario Draghi found Erdoğan’s behaviour inappropriate and called him “a dictator.”
Former Belgian prime minister Michel has since suffered sleepless nights, as well he may after leaving his colleague in the lurch by not hesitating to take the seat set out for him.
Sofa-gate could easily be dismissed as a storm in a teacup. But by effectively giving the EU the finger, Erdoğan could have irreparably damaged the onset of a rapprochement between the EU and Turkey.
Former Turkish diplomat Ali Dinçer takes a different view of the incident, calling the treatment of von der Leyen and Michel’s in Ankara “as fitting as it was embarrassing” and “the natural and tragic consequence of an unprincipled and purely value-free policy that for years Berlin has been unilaterally dictating to the entire bloc.”