The BBC reported from Paris on Jan. 5 that French President Emmanuel Macron had ended the “hypocrisy” of pretending there is any prospect of an advance in Turkey’s membership talks with the European Union.
In a joint press conference with his guest, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, Macron said the following: “As far as relations with the EU are concerned, it is clear that recent developments and choices do not allow any progression of the process we are engaged in.”
He suggested instead a relationship that would fall short of full membership but would “anchor the Turkish people in Europe.” That is exactly what former French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said 10 years ago. Back then Turkey strongly reacted against the suggestion, but this time Erdoğan simply said in the press conference that Ankara would not “beg” to enter the EU.
Turkish reporters accompanying Erdoğan on board his return plane the next day about Macron’s words. “I did not want to understand what exactly he meant. I rather chose to focus on letting him understand what we mean. I hope he understood us,” he said in response.
Erdoğan was effectively saying he did not want to hear such words from the French president, who had invited him at a time when he was looking for more visibility in Western Europe amid criticism about deteriorating rights and freedoms under the state of emergency following Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt. Still, Erdoğan did not try to hide his displeasure when Macron said in the Jan. 5 press conference that he had given a list of people in Turkish jails that France has concerns about, including social activist Osman Kavala.
The press conference came after Ankara signed a deal to buy 25 Airbus passenger planes, as well as a deal to start a study for the joint production of an French-Italian air defense system that is NATO-interoperable (unlike the Russian S-400 systems that Turkey recently purchased).
While Erdoğan was returning to Ankara, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was in Germany, where he was hosted by his counterpart Sigmar Gabriel at his home in the town of Goslar. That invite came in return for Çavuşoğlu’s hosting of Gabriel in his home province of Antalya last November.
Like Macron, Gabriel apparently wanted to focus on putting bilateral relations back on track rather than promoting Ankara’s membership of the EU. Personally serving Turkish-style brewed tea to his guest, Gabriel sought to emphasize that he did not want to escalate differences of opinion into big problems any more. He has also been trying to secure the release of more German citizens from jails in Turkey, including journalist Deniz Yücel, as well as promoting the interests of German investors.
On Jan. 7, in an address to guests at the reopening of the historic Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Istanbul after seven years of renovation, Erdoğan said the ceremony should be a “message to the world,” especially the EU, “showing the atmosphere of tolerance in Turkey.”
But the message that Europe recently seems to have received is that it is not a good idea to hit out at Erdoğan personally. What’s more, it should not expect too much regarding improving Turkish democracy while trying to achieve more for the security interests of the EU. And finally it should get as much as it can in terms of commerce.
So the BBC report’s interpretation of developments was not quite right: It is not the “end of EU hypocrisy” on Turkey; rather, it is an opportunistic transformation of it based on prevailing political circumstances.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that Bulgaria, led by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, took over the six-month term presidency of the EU on Jan. 1. Back during the Cold War, before Bulgaria was even in the waiting room of the EU, Turkey was defending the borders of the Western alliance against Bulgaria.
For Turkey it seems there is no longer any “EU waiting room” left. Instead, an “anchor” formula is being sought for it, together with Ukraine. This is likely being encouraged by calculations resulting from the Brexit process, as well as the fact that there is also no U.S. administration left under Donald Trump to promote Turkey’s inclusion in the European system.