Despite pressure from European Union leaders, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered no answers to a long list of concerns from Brussels over Turkey’s intervention in Syria and the jailing of dozens of journalists at home.
Meeting at a summit in the Black Sea coastal city of Varna on Monday- which host Bulgaria described as “charged with a great deal of tension, – the EU vowed to keep funds flowing for a refugee deal with Ankara, but fended off Turkish demands for deeper trade ties and visa-free travel to Europe.
“We didn’t achieve any kind of concrete compromise today,” European Council President Donald Tusk told reporters after talks with Erdogan.
“I still hope this will be possible in the future… Only progress on these issues will allow us to improve EU-Turkey relations, including the accession process.”
Despite criticism from European governments by what many see as growing authoritarianism under Erdogan’s regime, EU leaders left the door open to Turkey’s stalled bid for membership to the bloc but said only Erdogan was capable of removing the obstacles that keep Turkey from furthering its accession.
Erdogan has alarmed the West with a massive purge of hundreds of thousands of civil servants and political opponents since a failed coup in July 2016, including the arrest of dozens of independent journalists on trumped-up charges. Turkey remains an important ally in the NATO alliance and the fight against Islamic militants, but Erdogan’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric towards the West, his cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his own brand of nationalistic political Islam has alarmed most of the EU’s heads of state.
Turkey shares borders with Iraq and Syria, where it remains one of the main destinations for refugees fleeing the violence in both countries. Erdogan has used his position as the gatekeeper of Middle East refugees by constantly threatening to withdraw from an agreement with Brussels over the hosting of war refugees in exchange for EU money.
Erdogan complained that the bloc has so far disbursed just €1.8 billion of funds for the care of Syrian refugees and dragged its feet on a pledge to end visa requirements for Turks travelling to Europe. He also called on Brussels to update the customs union, which governs Turkey’s trade with the bloc, its biggest export market.
“We hope to have left the difficult times with the EU behind”, Erdogan said. “Turkey and the EU are long-term strategic partners. It would be a serious mistake for the bloc to push Turkey out of its enlargement politics”.
EU leaders offered their full support to Erdogan over the refugee issue but provided little in the way of vocal support for Erdogan’s demand that the membership accession process for Turkey should be immediately restarted. Membership negotiations began in 2005, but have since stalled over a number of issues that Erdogan refuses to compromise on.
The EU also expressed its objections to Turkey’s military ongoing operations in Syria’s Afrin region and a standoff over Mediterranean gas with EU members Greece and Cyprus.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was “saddened” by the state of relations with Turkey and urged Erdogan to improve relations with Greece and Cyprus. Turkey dispatched naval vessels last month to stop Cyprus from drilling offshore for hydrocarbons in what the EU has called an “illegal” blockade by the Turkish Navy.
Turkish police also arrested two Greek soldiers on espionage charges who Greece says inadvertently had crossed the border between the two countries.