Brussels has privately signalled that it will shunt publication of a highly critical report on Turkey’s free speech record until after its election in November, as the EU scrambles to keep Ankara on-board with a plan to stem migration.
The move has been hotly debated for weeks because a delay appears to favour the party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, whose authoritarian tendencies were a deep concern for the EU until the migration crisis blew up.
While a Turkey-EU “action plan” is in principle agreed, Ankara’s co-operation comes at a price: a €3bn funding package to help it cope with 2m Syrian refugees, tangible progress on stalled EU membership talks, and visa-free travel in Europe for its citizens.
The deal’s fragility was underlined when on Friday morning Feridun Sinirlioglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, warned EU officials that a summit of EU leaders had not met its side of the bargain, according to people familiar with the talks.
The provisional accord was salvaged during a conversation with Frans Timmermans, the commission vice-president, who promised to start unfreezing some chapters of EU membership negotiations and tangible advances on financing.
According to one diplomat, Ankara was also reassured that the contentious “progress report” on its membership bid — which contains critical sections on free speech and has already been delayed by a week — had yet not begun the commission’s internal approval process and would take time.
It effectively means it will emerge after the November 1 parliamentary election, as publication is politically unrealistic in the week before the November vote.
One EU ambassador quipped that it had been delayed “at the whim of the Sultan” — Mr Erdogan. “This is not healthy,” he said.
Although the chances of its emerging next week are negligible, Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, has yet to take a final decision. A commission spokesperson said Mr Juncker would judge when the moment was best to “get the full media and public attention that these reports merit”.
Delayed publication was one of Ankara’s demands in the migration negotiations.
Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary, last month pushed EU officials to defer publication.
A visit to Turkey by Angela Merkel tomorrow will highlight Europe’s desire to engage Mr Erdogan on migration, even amid a fraught election campaign that has seen increasing intimidation of media.
Ms Merkel asked that her visit be to Istanbul rather than Ankara, in part to avoid an awkward photo op with Mr Erdogan at his 1,100-room presidential palace. It is yet to be decided whether the two leaders will hold a joint press conference.
She has been more forthcoming on policy. Ms Merkel has backed a multi-billion-euro refugee aid package to Turkey. She has softened Berlin’s objections to Turkey’s inclusion on a “safe list” of countries, which means Turkish asylum seekers are be more easily rejected in Europe, even as violence has flared up with Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s south east.
The chancellor’s visit at such a sensitive political moment underlines her view of Turkey’s crucial role in tackling the migration crisis. Ankara will seek reassurance from her that the EU has the political will to deliver money, revived membership talks and visa rights to Turkey — and that Berlin will step up bilateral support if Europe proves to be divided.
“Turkey is not a country that you just remember in a crisis,” Mr Sinirlioglu said on Friday.
“It won’t be enough to give us worthless sums of money like in the past. It will have to be an amount that shows the EU’s hand is under the rock [so it is feels the weight of responsibility]”.