Peter Spiegel

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Just 24 hours after Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president who has overseen the EU’s response to the refugee crisis, confidently announced in Brussels that he was recommending Turks be granted visa-free travel to Europe, the Turkish politician who had won that very concession held a similar press conference 2,500km away to announce he was resigning.

The proximate cause of Ahmet Davutoglu’s departure as Turkey’s prime minister was his increasingly strained relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful president who found his hand-picked prime minister to be far less pliable than originally hoped. But EU officials are worried that Mr Davutoglu’s outreach to Europe was a contributing factor. Ankara has been buzzing about a new political blog that began attacking Mr Davutoglu earlier this week, accusing him of “collaborating with the West” and betraying Mr Erdogan by striking deals with the EU. Many believe Mr Erdogan himself gave the green light for the blog’s accusations. Turkish officials said the president was seething after Mr Davutoglu was pictured chummily touring refugee camps with Germany’s Angela Merkel and other EU leaders two weeks ago in the border city of Gaziantep. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Welcome to Monday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Merkel, right, with Turkish premier Ahmet Davutoglu at a refugee camp in Gaziantep

Part of the job description of any political leader is to do your best to make it look like you get along with people who you actually can’t stand. But when does that willingness to grin and bear it boomerang and make a leader look weak for not standing up for his or her principles?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lightning visit to the Turko-Syrian border on Saturday, where she roundly praised Turkey’s willingness to take in millions of Syrian refugees, was just the latest example of the effort she is prepared to make to sustain the EU’s fragile deal with Ankara on returning asylum seekers from Greece. Her problem is that, try as she might, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is going out of his way to make it as hard as possible to be nice to him.

The heart of the problem is Mr Erdogan’s hair trigger when it comes to feeling insulted, slighted or provoked. From the beginning, Ms Merkel has had to deal with manifold criticisms from human rights groups about the refugee plan and doubts over Turkey’s status as a safe country to send people back to from Greece. But repeated rows pitting Mr Erdogan’s tendency to take legal or diplomatic action against critics versus the EU’s fundamental principle of free expression are threatening to overshadow the refugee crisis itself. Read more

Peter Spiegel

This is Thursday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

There has been no shortage of reasons for outrage over last month’s refugee return deal between the EU and Turkey that, for now, has slowed the influx of migrants into Greece to a trickle. The UN believes the expulsion of migrants arriving in Greece may be illegal under international law. Human Rights Watch yesterday found the deportations “riddled with abuse”. Others have been more upset about the sweeteners given to Ankara in exchange for its cooperation in the crackdown, including €6bn in new aid and the unfreezing of negotiations over Turkish membership in the EU – which nearly upended Cypriot reunification talks and has given Brexiteers a new tool to scare UK voters.

But there may not be an issue as politically sensitive as the EU concession to provide Turkish nationals visa-free travel in Europe as early as June. Yesterday Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s migration commissioner, said Brussels will issue a progress report on May 4 outlining how far Ankara has gone in meeting 72 benchmarks required before the short-term visits can be allowed. “No visa liberalisation can be offered if all benchmarks are not met,” he intoned at a midday news conference.

There is increasing nervousness in several EU capitals, including Paris and Rome, that Turkey may actually clear those hurdles – or, if they’re close, the European Commission will give Ankara a pass and force national governments to decide what to do about the visa deal. That would be awkward for domestic politics in several EU countries; critics are already complaining that a refugee crisis that has caused an anti-immigrant backlash in some quarters because of the high number of Muslims arriving in Europe will have to be solved with a Turkey deal that will allow even more Muslims to travel to Europe. Some governments have begun looking at measures that would allow them to hedge their promise to Ankara, including safeguard clauses, extra conditions or watered down terms. But Ahmed Davutoglu this week made it clear: if there’s no visa-free travel deal, “no one can expect Turkey to adhere to its commitments.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Erdogan, Merkel and Obama at the November Group of 20 summit in Antalya, Turkey

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, shows up for a summit in Washington today, he’ll get something of a cold shoulder. Instead of a one-on-one with President Barack Obama, as Ankara requested, Mr Erdogan will instead be granted an audience with Joe Biden, the vice-president. The White House has tried to explain away the apparent snub as a factor of the 50-odd leaders who are descending on Washington for the gathering on nuclear security. But it is being seen in some quarters as a sign of strain in relations with the US over media freedom and Mr Erdogan’s aggressive military campaign against Kurds.

There have been no such outwards signs of squeamishness in Europe, however, where all 28 EU leaders have had three separate summits with Mr Erdogan’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to persuade him to stem the influx of migrants pouring into Europe from Turkey. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, went so far as to fly to Istanbul on the eve of Turkish elections to be photographed sitting in twin thrones with Mr Erdogan.

Which all makes the new diplomatic dust-up between European governments and Ankara all the more awkward. Yesterday, both Germany and the EU were forced to reiterate their support for a free press and free expression after Ankara summoned Germany’s ambassador to complain about a satirical video shown on German public broadcaster ARD that depicted Mr Erdogan as a dictator rounding up journalists and bombing Kurds. That diplomatic outburst came hot on the heels of an angry denunciation of EU envoys’ presence at an Istanbul trial of two prominent Turkish journalists charged with espionage. Read more

Peter Spiegel

This is Friday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu speaks to reporters upon arrival at the EU summit Friday morning

Turkey’s prime minister arrived in Brussels last night for what is expected to be an extremely difficult final round of negotiations with EU leaders on a deal that would allow Greece to return of thousands of refugees arriving on its shores to Turkey. The talks are due to begin this morning between Ahmet Davutoglu and three EU leaders – the European Commission and European Council presidents as well as Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister who holds the EU’s rotating presidency – but diplomats last night said they remained unsure whether Ankara would agree to the EU’s terms.

After five hours of talks in a summit last night, the EU’s 28 leaders agreed a common negotiating line that was not much different from a proposal tabled by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, the day before. But those terms include potential poison pills that Ankara has indicated are unacceptable. Foremost among those are measures Turkey would have to implement to completely overhaul its asylum system – including widening the nationalities that received protected status. Currently, only Syrians are given protections similar to those required under the Geneva Conventions, and the new EU negotiating line, seen by the FT, insists all migrants returned to Turkey be treated in compliance with “international standards”. Ankara has signaled it is unwilling to be lectured by Brussels on how it treats refugees. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Tusk, right, arrives in Nicosia for meetings with the Cypriot president earlier this week

At a meeting of all 28 ambassadors to the EU late yesterday, aides to Donald Tusk, the European Council president, circulated a new three-page draft of a migration deal with Turkey that will serve as the basis of two days of summit talks aimed at securing an agreement with Ankara by Friday.

We got our hands on the draft and have posted it here. Much of the text reflects the emerging consensus of European officials that has emerged over the last week, be it on the legality of the mass return policy of migrants from Greece to Turkey or on the sticky issue of getting Cyprus to sign onto any pact.

Because many of the issues are couched in opaque diplomatese, Brussels Blog hereby offers an annotated version of the key parts of the text:

 Read more

Duncan Robinson

Jean-Claude Juncker, far right, at a press conference after the EU summit with Turkey

After a 12-hour meeting between the EU and Turkey, a tired-looking Jean Claude Juncker took to the stage after 1am on Tuesday morning and boldly declared that a plan to send back migrants from Greek islands to Turkey was legal.

The European Commission president swiftly tried to bog the even more tired-looking press corps down in legalese. With impressively few glances at his notes, Mr Juncker regurgitated:

Article 33 and 38 of the asylum procedure directive clearly open the way for a solution of this kind. Because article 33, paragraph 2, letter C indicates that a country can refuse to consider a claim if a non-EU country is considered as a safe third country.

But is this true? Read more

Peter Spiegel

This is Tuesday’s edition of our Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu, left, at a post-summit press conference early Tuesday morning

It has become customary to assume EU summits aimed at tackling the ongoing refugee crisis produce much rhetoric but little meat. But last night’s gathering of European leaders with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, may prove the one that broke the rule.

In talks that went on for 12 hours, the two sides emerged with the outlines of a deal that, if finalised next week, is as sweeping in its implications as it is in its substance. The German-engineered plan would allow the EU to turn back almost all migrants washing ashore in Greece and return them to Turkey. But the price will be high: in addition to billions of additional European aid to Ankara, the EU would expedite a long-dormant visa liberalisation programme that could provide Turkish nationals visa-free travel into the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone as soon as June.

That a significant deal was in the offing was clear late last week when Donald Tusk, the European Council president, travelled to Ankara and received strong signals that Mr Davutoglu was open to a massive programme of refugee returns. But the plan now on the table is significantly more ambitious than the one Mr Tusk was considering. It was driven almost entirely by Mr Davutoglu and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, with the help of Mark Rutte, her Dutch counterpart and holder of the EU’s rotating presidency. The EU’s nominal leaders (Mr Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president) were almost entirely cut out of the deal-making, which began in earnest when the Turkish, German and Dutch leaders held a pre-summit meeting on Sunday. In her press conference, Ms Merkel acknowledged as much, saying Mr Davutoglu presented new demands at the Sunday meeting – and she endorsed them wholeheartedly. Read more

Peter Spiegel

This is the Monday edition of our Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Ahmet Davutoglu, centre, meets with his German and Dutch counterparts ahead of the summit

EU leaders gather in Brussels today with Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, to once again attempt to sort out a deal that could stop the massive influx of refugees crossing into Europe from Turkish shores. This time, however, rather than high-minded rhetoric, there appears to be a workable deal on the table: Mr Davutoglu has signalled his readiness to agree a scheme that would allow the EU to return tens of thousands of non-Syrian migrants trying to enter Greece back to Turkey. Add in a new Nato mission that was yesterday given the authority to operate in Turkish waters and will help Greek and Turkish authorities hunt down human smugglers, and the pieces of effective response may finally be falling into place.

There’s one small problem, however: the UN isn’t sure the plan is legal under international law, which prohibits “pushbacks” of potential asylum seekers, who under the Geneva Conventions must receive a fair hearing first. Vincent Cochetel, who is leading the UN refugee agency’s response to the European crisis, hinted EU courts would find the tactic in violation of EU laws which incorporate the Geneva Conventions. Human rights groups also question its legality. Read more

Peter Spiegel

This is Thursday’s edition of our Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Tusk stops in Athens Thursday morning to meet with Greece's Alexis Tsipras en route to Ankara

If it’s Thursday, it must be Ankara.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is halfway through a four-day, six-country tour ahead of Monday’s emergency EU summit on refugees that culminates in Turkey. He will meet prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu today in Ankara and cool his heels most of tomorrow morning awaiting an afternoon meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. On almost every stop on his way to Turkey, Mr Tusk has signalled he still isn’t happy with the country’s efforts to stem the migrant flow despite the much-debated bilateral deal in which Ankara was supposed to crack down on migration in exchange for €3bn in EU aid. Tusk has promised to raise the issue with the Turks.

New numbers released by the UN’s refugee agency show that daily arrivals in Greece peaked at more than 3,600 last week, which is not much lower than it has been for the last two months. Overall numbers for February were slightly below January, but EU officials have been reluctant to concede on any Turkish requests – like a new programme to resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey into Europe – unless those numbers fall more significantly. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Davutoglu, left, and Tusk embrace after last month's EU-Turkey summit in Brussels

During the height of the Donbass crisis, Ukrainian diplomats repeatedly managed to get President Petro Poroshenko into EU summit meetings even when he wasn’t explicitly invited – something that drove Herman Van Rompuy, then the European Council president, to distraction.

Are Turkish diplomats now trying to repeat the Ukrainian model?

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, is now scheduled to be in Brussels on Thursday – the same day the final two-day EU summit of the year kicks off – as part of a mini-summit of EU leaders hosted by Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.

The gathering, which is to be held at the Austrian embassy, will include leaders of several countries who back an upcoming “resettlement” proposal by the European Commission, which would push EU countries to take anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 Syrian asylum seekers currently in Turkey.

Thus far, the attendees include Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Sweden, Greece, Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. And now Davutoglu as well.

Donald Tusk, Van Rompuy’s successor as summit chairman, has made it clear that Davutoglu will not attend the summit itself, particularly since the Turkish prime minister was already feted at a summit of his very own just two weeks ago. Tusk’s displeasure is shared by several other countries who don’t think it is proper for other foreign leaders to gatecrash the EU party. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Fresh off Turkey’s recent national referendum approving constitutional reforms officials hope will move the country closer to EU membership, Ankara’s chief EU negotiator, Egemaen Bagis, was making the rounds in Brussels this week in an attempt to restart the stalled effort. Read more

Poor old Turkey has been getting mixed messages from European governments again, after visits by Britain’s David Cameron and Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, this week.

The UK prime minister was very outspoken in his support for Turkish membership of the European Union. “I will remain your strongest possible advocate for EU membership,” he said. “Together I want us to pave the road from Ankara to Brussels.”

It was familiar British policy, but spelt out with unusual passion, and very few cautionary words. Praising Turkey’s contributions as a Nato ally (no mention of Ankara’s tiresome blocking of Nato-EU co-operation on security issues), Mr Cameron declared: “It’s just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent.”

Turkish media seized on some of the most flattering comments from Mr Cameron. “Our golden age” was the headline in the top-selling newspaper Hurriyet, while the Sabah daily blazoned its front page with “The EU would be poor without Turkey”. Read more

Tony Barber

Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is expected to make a little progress today.  I stress “a little”.  In most respects, the cause of Turkish membership of the EU is in worse shape than at any time since EU governments recognised Turkey as an official candidate in 2004.

The progress, minimal though it is, takes the form of an agreement by the EU and Turkey to open formal talks on food security. This is one of the 35 chapters, or policy areas, that a country must complete before it can join the EU.  It means that Turkey will have opened 13 chapters in total.  Of these, however, only one chapter has been closed.  If this is progress, the snail is king of the race track. Read more

Tony Barber

Two weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean.  It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.

The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today’s European Union.  The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU’s southern member-states – such as France, Italy and Spain – and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea.  It was not a bad idea in principle.  But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM. Read more

Tony Barber

The election of Dervis Eroglu as Turkish Cypriot president appears at first sight to deal a severe blow to the latest United Nations-sponsored efforts at solving the Cyprus problem.  But appearances can be deceptive.  There may, in fact, be an opportunity for a breakthrough.  Crucially, however, it will require the involvement of the European Union.

Eroglu, 72, is usually dubbed a “hardline nationalist” in the international media on account of his long-standing commitment to Turkish Cypriot independence.  This is to miss the point that the Turkish Cypriots are economically dependent on Turkey and Eroglu can hardly act in defiance of the government in Ankara.  It is in the Turks’ wider diplomatic interests to bring about a Cyprus settlement.  They have already made it plain to Eroglu that they expect him to behave constructively. Read more

Tony Barber

Setting up the European Union’s new diplomatic service was never going to be easy.  Turf wars between the EU’s 27 member-states and the European Commission were inevitable, and the ever meddlesome European Parliament was certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to stick its oar in.  But if the EU doesn’t get this right, the world’s other big powers will never be convinced that the Europeans are serious about operating a coherent common foreign policy. Read more

Tony Barber

A potentially decisive moment is approaching in the Cyprus settlement talks that started in September 2008.  Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, is to visit the divided island on Sunday and stay there until Tuesday.  He does not, of course, have the authority to impose a settlement or even seriously to bang heads together.  But what he can do is impress on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders that the world is watching them and that a great deal hangs on the outcome of their negotiations.

A sense of urgency hangs over the talks because presidential elections will be held in Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus on April 18.  Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist president who helped revive the effort at reaching a comprehensive settlement more than 16 months ago, looks vulnerable to the challenge of Dervis Eroglu, the nationalist prime minister. Read more

Tony Barber

Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia.  As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.

Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government.  Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners.  Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime.  A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state. Read more

Tony Barber

Is it Islamophobia, ignorance, a crisis of European identity, a problem of a poorly integrated minority community, or something of all of these? 

According to an opinion poll published in today’s Le Soir , one of Belgium’s leading newspapers, some 59.3 per cent of Belgians support a ban on the construction of new minarets in their country.  This is about 2 per cent more than the proportion of Swiss who voted in a referendum last month to halt the building of new minarets. Read more