BRUSSELS (Reuters) - As dismayed as they may be at Turkey’s post-coup crackdown, EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday will avoid any harsh criticism of Ankara, whose help they badly need in keeping a lid on migration into Europe.
Ankara’s dismissal and detention of tens of thousands of people over their alleged links to the failed July coup has cast a long shadow on its accession talks with the EU.
But after initial criticism from Brussels, the bloc is now carefully hedging its bets to avoid upsetting Turkey too much, mindful that a March deal with Ankara cut to a trickle last year’s mass influx of people through Greece to Europe.
“We are in a different state of play from a year ago – then we couldn’t call a spade a spade, Germany was panicking over migration,” a senior EU official said.
“But now the Turks are implementing the migration deal. It is not all bleak. They are doing a better job than before. That will be highlighted in a positive way.”
For its help on migration, the bloc promised Ankara more money for hosting Syrian refugees, quicker EU accession talks and visa-free travel.
EU leaders, who will also push new efforts to curb migration from Africa, will call at a Brussels summit later on Thursday for “further implementation” and “progress on the full range of commitments” under their deal with Turkey, according to their draft joint statement seen by Reuters.
But behind the nuanced wording - showing the EU’s political will to keep the migration deal alive - lie real difficulties.
Detailed talks with Ankara have stalled after the botched coup, with EU diplomats and officials also saying technical cooperation has been hindered because so many Turkish officials have been purged from jobs in which they worked with EU staff.
Turkey has also fired hundreds of senior military staff serving at NATO in Europe, though Ankara rejects talk that the mass dismissals weaken its state institutions.
Both sides seem to have dug their heels on a key EU requirement that Ankara changes its counter-terrorism laws, which the bloc says are applied too broadly to persecute journalists and academics critical of President Tayyip Erdogan.
EU leaders are also reluctant to advance Turkey’s accession talks as they face an increased euroskepticism, anti-migrant sentiment and unease about Islam in their countries.
National elections due in March in the Netherlands, in April in France and after the summer break in Germany only make the case politically more sensitive.
Another problem in upholding the dialogue with Turkey hold is the unresolved division of Cyprus, which has long blocked Ankara’s EU aspirations over the decades-old conflict. The rival sides hope for a peace deal soon but chances for any major leap on Turkey’s path toward the EU remain dim without that.
While Brussels says Turkey has met most criteria at least for the visa liberalization, if not for EU membership itself, Cyprus says that is the case only on paper and accuses Ankara of not cooperating with it in certain areas.
The EU’s next report on Turkey, due on Nov. 9, will hence be a long enumeration of factual developments that followed the coup, EU officials said, an acknowledgement that the bloc is caught between a rock and a hard place in its ties with Ankara.
“The Turks will be furious about it but as long as their domestic political situation remains what it is now, there is just so much we can do,” said one EU official. Others say that while Turkey has been vocal in its criticism of the EU in public, cooperation behind the scenes has been businesslike.
Ankara, on its side, says the EU has been too slow in disbursing the promised aid. Many Turks were incensed by what they saw as Europe’s misjudged reaction to the attempted military putsch that killed more than 240 people.
Turkey’s EU minister told Reuters on Tuesday Ankara would stop readmitting illegal migrants from Europe if the bloc fails to ease visa requirements by the end of the year.
And in trying to square this circle, the EU is indeed looking at progress on visas to keep Turkey’s attention.
“Now is not the time for decisions on Turkey because of what happened in July. But it would be politically good to have the visa decision around December. The closer we get to elections, the harder it will be,” said another senior EU diplomat.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Robin Emmott; Editing by Alison Williams