The head of the EU delegation to Turkey, Hansjörg Haber, announced his resignation earlier this week after less than a year in his post. He was the highest representative of the EU in Turkey, acting as EU ambassador since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force 2009.
Haber’s sudden resignation was met with surprise, and the explanation offered by the EU delegation spokesperson only served to fuel more curiosity. In response to questions about the reason behind this decision, she told reporters “we are not in a position to comment on the reason at the moment”.
Haber’s resignation was apparently triggered by friction with the Turkish government over his criticism of Turkey’s implementation of the refugee deal. Last month, he told to a group of reporters in Ankara “We have a proverb [in Germany], ‘start off like a Turk and finish like a German’. But the reverse has happened here. It started off like a German and is finishing like a Turk.”
Haber’s remarks were not welcome by Turkey. He was immediately summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in protest. According to the Minister of European Union Affairs Volkan Bozkır, the EU Ambassador’s remarks aimed to belittle Turkish people. For obvious reasons, relations have since gone into the deep freeze, and Haber was subsequently asked to resign by the High Representative and Vice President of the EU, Federica Mogherini.
Haber’s resignation came at a crucial stage in EU-Turkey relations. After years of deadlock in Turkey’s accession negotiations – partially a result of enlargement fatigue on the side of the EU and partially due to the lack of engagement in democratisation and EU reforms by the Turkish government – the EU and Turkey have decided to brush aside their differences over the state of Turkey’s candidacy and its response to Syrian war and the ISIS threat.
This was made possible by the EU’s prioritising of the refugee crisis, which currently entails coming to terms with the fact that cooperation with Turkey, a country that hosts more than 2 million Syrian refugees and is a major transit country for irregular migration, is both vital and unavoidable.
Cooperation in response to the refugee crisis has brought about an exception in the downturn of the relations between the two. Under the November 2015 joint action plan, Turkey agreed to issue work permits to Syrian migrants and stepped up border patrolling to crack down on the demand for human smuggling.
Further on, under the March 2016 agreement, known as ‘one in, one out’ deal, Turkey accepted the rapid return of all migrants not in need of international protection (namely, migrants who do not qualify as refugees or who did not apply for asylum). In return, the EU agreed that “for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU”. As a part of the deal, the EU committed a 3 billion euro aid package, renewed Turkey’s accession talks by opening Chapter 31 previously blocked by France and started the visa liberalisation process for Turkish citizens.
However, the implementation did not begin as desired. Visa liberalisation is a highly valued prize for the Turkish government, which considers it as a done deal as a part of the refugee agreement, while the EU argues that the deal implied the fulfilment 72 criteria by Turkey. On June 15, the European Commission released its fourth report on visa liberalization. According to the Commission, Turkey has missed the deadline for visa free travel to start this summer and has yet to fulfil all the conditions, including the highly contested requirement regarding Turkey’s controversial terrorism law as well as enduring border security and human rights issues.
Erdoğan himself has criticised these EU requirements as an intrusion into Turkey’s internal affairs, rebuffing it in a statement: “We’ll go our way, you go yours”. Notably, the reaction of the Turkish government to EU’s requirements on counter-terrorism laws seems to be a part of a dangerous domestic game the AKP plays in relation to the renewed Kurdish conflict.
In fact, the first progress report on visa liberalisation was published in October 2014. It already suggested Turkey revise its terrorism and organised crime legislation in line with EU laws and practices. Back then, the government welcomed the progress report and declared its commitment to fulfil the conditions. In fact, the report was a result of months of close coordination and work by the Turkish authorities and the EU and reflected a mutually accepted roadmap.
Why then did the government decide to reject the requirement now?
What happened in between was the escalation of armed conflict with the PKK and human rights violations under curfews in the south eastern provinces. The AKP is aware that stirred nationalist sentiments under the threat of terrorism only increases their electoral gains, at the expense of support for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Then came Erdoğan’s declaration, in March 2016, stating the need to extend the definition on terrorism and terrorist – moving Turkey even further away from fulfilling the necessary conditions. It now seems that the visa liberalisation talks have come to a total deadlock as the new Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım stated that: “Changing the anti-terror law can never, under any condition, ever, be a point of discussion for us”.
Notably, instead of seeking a compromise with the EU, Erdoğan and his advisers chose to blackmail the EU in a hollow attempt to ensure the visa waiver regime is in place by this summer. In a remark that apparently further estranged the EU, the President noted that Turkey “can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and put the refugees on buses. We can tell [the Europeans] sorry, we will open the doors and say goodbye to the migrants”.
On the other hand, the exchange of refugees continues as the deal required. To date, 511 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Europe. In return, 462 migrants, of which 31 are Syrians, have been sent back to Turkey from Greece. The EU, or more specifically, the Commission and particularly Angela Merkel, are determined to make the refugee deal work.
The EU needs Turkey’s cooperation. However, it seems increasingly difficult to appease a capricious authoritarian government that perceives itself so fundamental to the EU because of its status as a transit country. This status seemingly gives Turkey the upper hand to dictate its wishes, to continue receiving carrots from the EU while consolidating an undemocratic regime at home, to walk out on earlier agreements or to create acrimony to force the EU’s withdrawal of its ambassador.
The EU Minister Ömer Çelik has already celebrated yet another ‘victory’ over the EU after the resignation of Haber, stating there was no point in the ambassador continuing to serve in Turkey because of the offense he caused at the highest level: “The first rule that a diplomat must certainly know and abide by is to respect the values of the countries they serve in as well as … to respect the office of the president. He violated those two basic rules”.
Claiming that Hansjörg Haber offended the office of the president or Turkish values is an attempt to deliberately mislead public opinion to say the least. Another ambassador will soon be dispatched to mend relations and continue cooperation, yet only on the condition that s/he avoids criticising the Turkish government publicly. Until what point is the EU is prepared to put up with this?
Turkey’s democratic foundations have been deteriorating since 2010. Yet the EU has been so absorbed by the eurozone crisis and euroscepticism at home, it has so far failed to engage with Turkey as a candidate country, a failure that is so apparent now as Turkish democracy falls through the cracks.
Nobody knows how long the EU can sustain walking this tightrope between its own norms and appeasing an authoritarian regime because of its strategic interests. The final breaking point in the relations might be very near as the ever deteriorating democracy and human rights abuses in Turkey deepens the crisis between the two. Even nearer if the refugee deal does not deliver the desired result of preventing irregular migration to the EU.