It was billed as a "High-Level Political Dialogue Meeting" that would pave the way for another improvement in the strained and fragile ties of Turkey and the European Union—it was anything but.
The top EU officials attending the Ankara meeting—EU foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini and the bloc’s enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn—took a rather different line than their interlocutor—Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu—at a joint press conference held after the November 22 encounter.
"A strong Turkey means a democratic Turkey," Mogherini declared at the news conference with Hahn and Cavusoglu.
"We expressed our strong concerns about the detention of several prominent academics and civil society representatives, including those recently detained," Mogherini added in forthright remarks.
On November 16, 13 prominent academics and civil society figures were detained in Turkey with officials citing alleged connections with the 2016 nationwide anti-government protests known as the Gezi movement.
Mogherini was not content to stop at mentioning the latest detentions in the massive nationwide crackdown against alleged opponents of the Erdogan regime—a crackdown that is continuing despite the ending of the two-year state of emergency in July, which the government put in place after the mid-2016 failed coup. Brussels’ foreign policy chief caused another stir by calling for Turkey to respect this week’s European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas should be released from his pre-trial detention, which has lasted towards 24 months. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has contentiously claimed Turkey is "not bound" by the decision, even though it is a member of the court.
Hitting back at EU commissioners who have heavily criticised Turkey's lack of progress in satisfying requirements that would allow its longstanding candidacy to join the bloc to progress, Cavusoglu said at the press briefing: "There's no use in making statements that exclude Turkey from the EU accession process or denying its candidacy."
In a statement issued after the press conference, the comissioners added that Turkey needed to “take decisive action to reverse the current trend in the rule of law and fundamental rights”.
During an interview with CNN Turk on November 23, Cavusoglu said Mogherini was “out of line” for the way she took Turkey to task and said the ECHR ruling on Demirtas was motivated by politics, not the law.
“Erdogan at arm’s length”
VOA quoted analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners as suggesting that the strong language from the EU commissioners in Ankara underlined Brussels' present approach to Turkey. "I think [it is] unlike the United States, where there is a loud and inconclusive debate on what to do with Turkey, carrot or stick," he reportedly said. "The Europeans have long decided to keep Erdogan at arm's length, be nice to him, but don't give him anything and I don't think that is going to change."
Turkey hosts more than three million Syrian refugees and under an agreement made with the EU in 2016 it has stopped many potential flows of migrants towards the European continent.
Referring to this deal, Cavusoglu said: "We made an agreement for migration. In that agreement we agreed to open five [EU membership] chapters, then a decision comes out against opening new chapters. This is hypocrisy, there's no explanation for this."
Turkey needs to have 35 membership chapters unblocked and completed to progress its accession to the EU.
Ankara has often warned that it may end the migration deal because of its disputes with Brussels, but Yesilada was cited as suggesting that the EU may no longer be so wary of that line. "I don't think Turkey can unleash the refugees. Those days are over, thanks to Hungary, Slovenia, closing their borders to refugees, they will not reach the core of Europe."
Nevertheless, he reportedly noted, Brussels has an interest in Turkey's stability given the economic and financial challenges facing the country as it struggles to avoid its unresolved currency crisis triggering a wider debt and liquidity crisis that could mean repercussions for European economies. According to most analysts, Turkey remains on course for a painful recession.