Discussion on the relations with Turkey was on the agenda at the European Council Summit in October and the debate was heated. According to many sources, the conversation took time away from several other discussion topics. However, this was not evident in the final Summit conclusions.

These state, in the context of migration:

“To consolidate and deepen this approach on all migration routes, the European Council further calls for the following:

  • showing full commitment to our cooperation with Turkey on migration and to support for the Western Balkans;
  • full and non-discriminatory implementation of the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement with all Member States…”,

and in the context of foreign policy:

“The European Council held a debate on relations with Turkey.”

In fact, some strategic manoeuvring by the leaders to appeal to their own constituencies was applied skilfully.

The Dilemma:

Especially challenging for the Council is how to ensure that Turkey keeps a large number of migrants from entering the EU and at the same time asserts its disapproval of the Turkish government’s policies which often disregard core democratic values.

On one hand, we have Chancellor Merkel’s remarks: “we agreed … that we will ask the Commission to cut pre-accession aid in a responsible way.” Austria and Germany are the main hard-liners in their views toward Ankara, with Berlin expressing anger not only over the jailing of German journalists but also for what it considers Turkish interference in the recent German elections.

On the other hand, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has been explicit in saying that Bulgaria and the rest of the EU should tread carefully when setting its strategic relations with Turkey. His position is, of course, heavily influenced by the country’s geopolitical location with Turkey being one of Bulgaria’s neighbours. He referred to the EU-Turkey deal for stopping the flow of migrants from Turkey to nearby Greek islands as essential and to be preserved. Prime Minister Borisov also expressed that: “during our presidency, a definitive breaking of accession negotiations should not be mentioned”. Lastly, the Bulgarian Prime Minister elaborated on the need to make sure that Turkey does not switch to the other side—referring to Turkey’s membership in NATO and its recent purchases of Russian military equipment.

Certainly, other member states are also interested in continuing and not scaling down the agreement with Turkey regarding migration flows. Quite interestingly, one easily identifiable supporter is Greece. Although both Greece and Turkey have their own long lists of disagreements (including Cyprus), Turkey’s role in slowing down the flow of migrants towards Greece is currently undeniable. In addition, the more Turkey is engaged with the EU and other international organisations, the better for the national interests of Greece.

Let’s not forget Spain and Italy. Traditionally, Spain has enjoyed playing the role of a facilitator and has preferred building bridges with Turkey. Although the Spanish government currently has its own significant internal challenges, it continues to oppose the dismissal of accession negotiations with Turkey. Italy is also a traditional supporter of Turkey since they share close trade and energy relations. Thus, Italy is also not comfortable with the EU idea = to permanently stop the accession process.

In an interesting twist of events, Turkey found another supporter in the EU—Poland. After the official presidential visit to Warsaw in October, the Turkish president Recep Erdogan was assured that Poland will support their accession bid. For the Turkish president, this was the first official invitation from an EU member state since the coup attempt last year.

The Result:

In the end, no decision on permanently and officially stopping the accession procedure was made. Rather, the Commission was instructed on a ‘softer option’ for shifting of committed funding and a reflection on whether to cut pre-accession funds (the verdict is still pending if such cuts can happen now or only after 2020). Admittedly, the European Parliament demanded approximately 80 million euros to be cut as part of the next year’s budget negotiations. This was mainly done to send a signal to Ankara that they are drifting away from the European values and standards. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker—as per his remarks after the Council Summit—is taking to heart the option for the EU to increase the funding going to the Turkish civil society—shifting EU funds from governmental programs to the civil society. And as it is evident in the written Summit conclusions, the Council has reaffirmed its commitments on the EU-Turkey deal for stopping migrant flows.

After the recent European Council Summit, the media coverage in Bulgaria can make one think that somehow the ‘small’ Bulgaria “won” over a powerful Germany in the heated debate on Turkey. In reality, leaders used the necessary language to calm their constituencies, while pragmatically deciding between stopping migrant flows or standing by core values on the former option.