Why did Boyko Borissov’s mission in Ankara fail?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The talks in Ankara. [Facebook page of Boyko Borissov]

If Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission really wants to be global, it should intervene at the root of the problem instead of trying to deal with the consequences, writes Ivailo Kalfin.

Ivailo Kalfin was the foreign minister of Bulgaria when the country joined the European Union.

The growing tension in the EU-Turkey relations in recent days seems to be due to the organised wave of migrants, sent to the Turkish-Greek border. However, the roots are much deeper.

The initiative of Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to immediately pay a visit to the Turkish president appeared logical. It could open the way for dialogue between the EU and Turkey, with the help of the EU member state that has good neighbourly relations with the latter.

Borissov arrived in Ankara seemingly as an EU envoy, having held numerous phone conversations with EU leaders prior to the visit. Based on this, it seemed to be a very good move.

The problem was that Borissov went to Ankara with no clear message or in the best case – with a very blurred one. He offered to host a meeting between the Turkish president and the EU leaders, mentioned an additional €1 billion of aid to help Turkey deal with the refugees and demonstrated his extremely good will vis-à-vis the Turkish neighbour.

None of these impressed Erdoğan. He was very clear that the only topic he was ready to discuss is Syria.  He also demonstrated that he will not weaken the migrants’ pressure until he gets some results.

To the good will of Borissov, the Turkish leader reciprocated by offering face masks and coronavirus test kits to Bulgaria. (Bulgaria has no registered case of coronavirus, but face masks have disappeared from the pharmacies.)

In fact, the idea for the summit failed because the chances to agree whatever on Syria seems very slim. EU and Turkey stand on very different positions. Therefore, over the next days, we should expect an increase in the organised migration pressure, while diplomats are looking for ways to find an agreement.

Turkey expects support for its operation in Northern Syria and in Idlib in particular. Erdoğan made clear that he claims control over a stretch of the Syrian territory, where he would begin to repatriate the Syrian refugees.

He is confronted there by the actions of the Syrian government, backed by Russia. In fact Russia has a considerable influence in this region. Moscow originally agreed with Turkey over the military presence in Syria but apparently, this agreement has shadow zones. It seems that Russia aims to control Turkish control over part of the Syrian territory.

Parallel to that, the USA took a distance from the conflict in Syria, while Erdoğan tries to bring them back via the NATO mechanisms. The sensitive balance of Erdoğan between Russia and the USA produces substantial risks but for the moment he attempts to maximize the profits of the current situation.

What can the EU do? First, not to bend to any form of pressure, including through migration. The long-term interests of Turkey clearly assume close relations with the EU and this is a very strong argument.

Second, if von der Leyen’s Commission pretends to be global, it is supposed to intervene where the root of the problem is and not to deal with the consequences. That means that the EU should come forward as an influential factor regarding the developments in Syria.

This message seems to be understood as the HR/VP Josep Borell flies to Ankara a day after Borissov, with Syria on his agenda. However, it is of crucial importance that this time around the EU doesn’t limit its reaction to a political conclusion and an appeal to find a peaceful solution in Idlib.

Perhaps the first step should be to create the post of an EU Special Representative for Syria. The EUSR could start consultations with the various stakeholders and consolidate the dispersed engagements in the region into a strong and influential EU position.

She or he should keep a sight on the final goal for the EU – to halt the military fights, to stabilize the situation in Syria, to overcome the humanitarian crisis and create conditions for the return of the Syrian refugees.

This op-ed was first published on EURACTIV Bulgaria.

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