Has Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan duped the European Union?

Many observers in Europe think so. On Tuesday, the two most senior EU officials paid a joint visit to Ankara. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel were received by Erdogan at his palace – and von der Leyen was snubbed by being seated on a sofa a few meters away from Erdogan whereas Michel got to sit on a chair next to the Turkish leader. It looked like a carefully orchestrated insult against the Commission president. Von der Leyen was evidently surprised by the arrangement that awaited her and muttered “Errm”, but then sat down on the large sofa allocated to her.



Veteran EU reporter Jean Quatremer from France tweeted: “How could @Eucopresident fall into this trap put up by the sultan in Ankara? The behaviour of the president of the European Council is a human, political and diplomatic shame for Europe and for its value of egality between men and women.” In Ankara, the German correspondent for “die tageszeitung“, Jürgen Gottschlich, called the the pair’s visit a „capitulation before an autocrat”.

Critics pointed out that Erdogan only a few days ago had withdrawn Turkey from the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, a legally binding treaty concluded a decade ago by 34 European countries under the umbrella of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, of which Turkey is a member state. The “We Will Stop Femicide” campaign has said that in the past year alone, at least 300 women were murdered in Turkey, most of them by their husbands. A further 171 women were found dead under suspicious circumstances.

A spokesman for the Turkish president said the Istanbul Convention’s intention of promoting women’s rights had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality”, something that was incompatible with Turkey’s social values.

After their meeting, Charles Michel said that the pair had “had frank discussions with President Erdogan on the future of EU-Turkey relations.” It was in the EU’s strategic interest to have “a stable and secure environment in the Eastern Mediterranean and a mutually beneficial and positive relationship with Turkey”, he added. The European Union was Turkey’s largest trading partner.

“We have told President Erdogan that the EU is ready to put a concrete and positive agenda on the table, based on three pillars: economic cooperation, migration, and people-to-people contacts and mobility. Our engagement will be progressive, proportional and reversible. And we hope Turkey will seize this window of opportunity.” Economic cooperation, Michel pointed out, would be “envisaged in a number of areas. The European Council has invited the Commission to start preparatory work.”

“The rule of law and respect of fundamental rights are core values of the EU. We shared with President Erdogan our deep worries on the latest developments in Turkey in this respect, in particular on freedom of speech, and the targeting of political parties and media.” He also raised the issue of the Istanbul Conventions, but did not announce any concrete actions. “The European Union has a strategic interest in developing a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey. At the same time, we are determined to defend EU and Member States’ interests and to promote our values”, said Michel, adding, “For its part, the EU is ready to walk the talk. We will assess the progress at our European Council meeting in June.”

“Positive agenda”

The approach taken in Brussels towards Turkey could not be more different from that in Washington. So far, US President Joe Biden has refused to talk to Erdogan on the phone – let alone in a direct meeting. A Council official said on Wednesday that Michel met with the US ambassador in Ankara. “The US and EU are fully aligned on the need for a stable and secure environment in the Eastern Mediterranean, and of a positive and mutually beneficial relationship between the EU and Turkey.” Both sides, the source added, agreed that it was now up to Ankara to “seize the opportunity”.

A “progressive, proportionate and reversible agenda can be put on the table, and the Commission will start working on it”, but Michel and von der Leyen had made it clear to Erdogan that without improvement in the area of human rights and media freedom, there would be no acceptance by EU member states “for a positive agenda with Turkey”.

Author: Michael Thaidigsmann