19th Mar 2018

11 days: EU leaders' near fallout over Turkey

  • There was a massive breach of trust between the German chancellor Angela Merkel and most of her fellow leaders. (Photo: Consillium)

A smiling photo Friday afternoon (18 March) sealed the reconciliation between EU leaders and signaled that internal divisions over a proposed EU-Turkey deal were over - at least temporarily.

In the photo, posted on Twitter by his spokesman, Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiades stands next to German chancellor Angela Merkel. The comment above reads: "#EUCO about to start… Happy faces?"

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EUCO stands for European Council, the institutional name for the gathering of EU leaders.

The Anastasiades-Merkel make-up cleared the way for an EU-Turkey deal to help reduce the flow of migrants.

EU leaders proclaimed they had found a long-term solution to the refugee crisis that has rocked Europe since last summer.

It was a symbolic end to an eleven-day saga that saw Anastasiades threatening to veto any deal and Merkel being accused of bullying fellow leaders and giving more importance to a non-EU country.

On 7 March, in an acrimonious extraordinary EU summit, the two leaders fought over the Turkish demand, supported by Germany, to open five new chapters in Turkey's EU accession negotiations.

The move would be part of a quid pro quo - Turkey would take back migrants and refugees from Greece, the EU would accelerate Turkey's EU bid and visa liberalisation process.

The problem was that the chapters Turkey wanted to see opened were five of the six chapters blocked by Cyprus because Turkey, which occupies half of the island of Cyprus since 1974, does not recognise Cyprus' existence.

Merkel, according to sources, pressured Anastasiades to relent on the chapters and give satisfaction to Turkey.

A deal with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants to Europe was crucial for the German chancellor, who faced three regional elections the next Sunday.

She was desperately in need of positive news, after the effective closure by Austria of the Western Balkan migrant route and other countries along the route. The decision, first taken without coordination with other countries or EU institutions, was a major setback for Merkel's open border policy.

Council short-circuited

What happened on Sunday 6 March and Monday 7 March is disputed between Germans and others.

One thing is sure - there were what a top EU official called "deficiencies of the process" - namely a massive breach of trust between Merkel and most of her fellow leaders after she short-circuited the normal summit proceedings.

First, on Monday morning, a few hours before the EU summit and a working lunch with Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Merkel said she would oppose a sentence in the draft conclusions stating that the Balkan route was "now closed".

The draft has been agreed by all EU ambassadors the day before. Germany says its ambassador expressed his opposition to the sentence. Sources from other countries say that only concerns were expressed.

The bombshell came during lunch when a new plan, to the surprise of many EU leaders, was put forward by Davutoglu. Only a handful had previous knowledge of the plan, and only a few moments before.

It appeared that the plan - the quid pro quo mentioned above - has been discussed by Davutoglu, Merkel and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on Sunday evening at the Turkish EU mission in Brussels.

A source close to Merkel now says that she discovered the plan at the meeting and only discussed it with Davutoglu and Rutte to make it workable. But for most of the participants who discovered it on Monday, she was the brain behind the Turkish paper.

"Stop saying it's a Turkish plan, they haven't written it," an angry official from a small member state told a group of journalists.

Even the French president, historically the closest ally of the German chancellor, had been kept out of the loop.

Slap in the face

For Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, it was no less a slap in the face.

The week before the summit, he had travelled five countries in three days to try to mend fences over the closure of the Western Balkan route and find a compromise to be endorsed by all leaders on 7 March.

On Thursday (3 March), only three days before Davutoglu and Merkel worked on the plan, he had met Davutoglu and Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

They had agreed that Turkey would take back illegal migrants from Greece. But Turkish leaders did not say a word about the coming proposal.

At the end of their summit in Brussels, EU and Turkish leaders only agreed on the main principles on the so-called Turkish plan and asked Tusk to "work out the details" before the next summit on 17-18 March.

"It was clear from the start that the Turkish proposal was not going to fly," an EU source said.

The following days saw leaders settling scores and at the same trying to rebuild some kind of unity in order to make the controversial plan work.

In Brussels, EU diplomats from a various countries told journalists how Merkel conducted herself poorly by bypassing her colleagues and unilaterally engaging Turkey with the hope that everyone else would abide.

'You cannot act like a child'

Tusk, who owed his post to Merkel, had been mortified but "he didn't take it personally," another EU source said, "because it was basically Merkel and Rutte against all the others".

The European Council president nevertheless let his frustration with Merkel show on Twitter. On 9 March, two days after the summit, Tusk tweeted what could be interpreted as a rebuttal to Merkel's position:

"Irregular flows of migrants along Western Balkans route have come to an end. Not a question of unilateral actions but common EU28 decision," one tweet said.

"I thank Western Balkan countries for implementing part of EU's comprehensive strategy to deal with migration crisis," a second tweet added.

Later, he publicly spoke about the "Turkish proposal worked out together with Germany and the Netherlands," quashing Germany's claim that it had nothing to do with it at first.

The proposal "still needs to be re-balanced," Tusk said, suggesting a German-Dutch bias in favour of Turkey.

But Tusk and his cabinet started to work with member states to table an acceptable final plan, and EU sources later said that Turkey was consulted the entire way about what was being worked out in Brussels.

Across the road from the Council, the European Commission was facing a situation it had not expected and was at pains to justify the plan to the press.

The Commission had been called in at the last minute on Monday to find a legal basis to the Turkish plan.

Its legal experts and civil servants were working towards a sound legal argument, while devising a plan to help Greece cope with the task of examining thousands of asylum claims.

"When these things happen you cannot act like a child, cross your arms and say: 'I don't play anymore'. You have to do your job," a third EU source told EUobserver.

'Anastasiades is the last chance'

The most visible part of the EU rift was Cyprus. In the Financial Times, Anastasiades asserted he would "never accept being forced".

"I will never give my consent, because otherwise I have no other choice but to not return back home," he said.

He would later say that he would be "ready to be shouted at again [by other leaders] but would still veto" the opening of the five chapters.

In the following days, he gathered support of member states and Tusk, who went to visit him in Nicosia on 15 March and said that "Cyprus is as important as Germany, France, the Netherlands or any other member state".

"No third country can ever be more important to me than any of our member states," Tusk added.

Support for Cyprus was partly based on principles - first, the principle that one EU member should be supported when it comes to the recognition of its mere existence; secondly, the principle that it should be up to Turkey to meet its obligations first.

But support was also based on geopolitical concerns, with talks well under way to find a political settlement and reunification of the island.

A solution to the 41-year old conflict has never been so close since Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci shook hands at the economic forum in Davos in January and said they wanted to reach a settlement this year.

"Anastasiades is the last chance to make the process continue and reach a settlement," an EU source said.

"He's from the last generation to want a settlement. Impose [the opening of the chapters] on him would have wrecked him and destroyed the trust."

Tusk flew from Cyprus to Ankara on 15 March, but had to make a detour and touch down in Athens. Even as the European Council president, he was not allowed to enter Turkey's airspace from Cyprus.

When Tusk talked to Davutoglu that evening, the Turkish prime minister understood he would not get the five chapters he asked for.

'Rebuild unity'

On Wednesday (16 March), the day before the summit, EU ambassadors met to work on the draft EU-Turkey statement prepared by Tusk's cabinet.

Cyprus was not happy at the wording, according to which "the EU, together with Turkey [would] prepare for the decision on the opening of new chapters".

Alternative formulations soon circulated to alleviate Cyprus' concerns. An official from a member state said an agreement between the 28 EU leaders and with Turkey on that issue would be based on "constructive ambiguity".

At that stage of the preparation for the summit, all parties involved pledged transparency, to avoid a new falling out between leaders. A German source admitted that his country would not act "the same way as last time".

When EU leaders met again on Thursday (17 March) for a summit where they would first agree on their proposal to Turkey before meeting Davutoglu on Friday, "the key point was to rebuild unity," one of the EU sources said.

"We should not make possible for Turkey to play a group of member states against others," the source said. "The message to Turkey would be that whatever happened on 7 March, they would now be on one single track."

As a result, no bilateral meeting with Davutoglu was authorised for Friday morning before Tusk could present to Davutoglu the proposal agreed by EU leaders on Thursday evening.

One chapter

Discussions between Tusk, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, the Netherland's Rutte and Davutoglu were mainly on legal aspects of the deal, while aides worked on practical details, according to sources.

The commission and several member states, including France, had made clear after 7 March that Turkey would have to fulfil all 72 requirements set out in a 2013 roadmap before getting visa liberalisation. The target date remained end of June, thus giving Davutoglu satisfaction.

On the most sensitive issue of accession chapters, a compromise was found on a paragraph saying that "preparatory work for the opening of other chapters will continue at an accelerated pace without prejudice to member states' positions in accordance with the existing rules".

The discussion was not difficult, a source said, as it was clear for Davutoglu that EU leaders would never agree on opening the five most sensitive chapters.

France's Francois Hollande helped by unblocking a chapter previously blocked by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. The EU was therefore able to grant Davutoglu a new chapter to be opened before the end of June.

Moral doubts

In the end, everyone said they were satisfied with the agreement. Merkel had a solution involving Turkey. Greece had a plan to relieve its islands overflowing with thousands of migrants. Bulgaria had Turkey's commitment to prevent migrant smuggling, using its border as an alternative route. Spain, bound by a parliamentary resolution, had guarantees that migrants would not be sent back to Turkey collectively. Hungary had a guarantee that it would not be obliged to receive refugees from Turkey. Turkey had political commitments on visa, accession talks and a further €3 billion for aiding refugees on its territory.

The two main victims of the 7 March summit were vindicated. Cyprus' Anastasiades was able to return home with renewed support from his partners on the accession chapters issue. The European Council's Tusk had safely steered the negotiations and came out as the man-in-charge after being sidelined.

The agreement is now in place, awaiting implementation. Hopefully, Greece would soon be able to process, accommodate and return the illegal migrants arriving on its territory. And hopefully, Turkey will pass the necessary laws and implement expected measures to address human rights concerns and compliance of the deal with international laws.

"Logistically, it is a huge task. Morally we might have doubts," a source said.

But after six months of the refugee crisis and eleven days of EU internal drama, everyone needed an agreement and a new solution to present to the public.

Smuggled migrants to leave Greece from Sunday onward

EU-Turkey accord to see rejected asylum applicants sent back to Turkey and an equal number of Syrian refugees to be resettled in the EU. Much will depend on Greece's capacity to deliver.

EU and Turkey agree draft refugee plan

Under a draft deal that has yet to be endorsed by all EU and Turkish leaders, the return of migrants to Turkey will start next Monday. Turkey will not get the accession chapters and the additional money it demanded.

Tusk says 'alarming' numbers of migrants in Libya

Council chief substantiated concern that more people could cross the Mediterranean to Italy and Malta, and warned that relying on refugee relocations to face migrant flows would be a “mistake”.


The populists may have won, but Italy won't leave the euro

The situation as Rome tries to form a government is turbulent and unpredictable. However, the most extreme eurosceptic policies floated during the election campaign are unlikely to happen - not least due to the precarious state of the Italian banks.


Why has central Europe turned so eurosceptic?

Faced with poorer infrastructure, dual food standards and what can seem like hectoring from western Europe it is not surprising some central and eastern European member states are rebelling.

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