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Brussels and Ankara: It’s complicated
 

By Apostolos Staikos, from Euronews' Athens bureau

Ankara makes a choice. Brussels reacts. Ankara moves forwards anyway.

This could read as a short summary of the relations between the two sides in recent years. At every opportunity, Turkey shows no concern for any kind of European criticism coming its way.

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque and the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty preventing violence against women, are just two of the latest examples of Ankara’s diplomatic disdain. After all, Turkey is used to verbal condemnations that are not matched by action.

Few people in Europe remember – or dare to remember – that the country is still an official candidate for EU membership. For many, Turkey is simply a wayward neighbour with whom we cannot afford to fight.

Critics of Ankara believe that "Erdogan only understands the language of economy" and argue that only economic sanctions can hurt Turkey. For months, Greece and Cyprus have been urging the EU-27 to impose punitive measures on Ankara for its illegal drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. Instead, Athens and Nicosia receive sympathy, understanding and friendly pats on the back.

The reluctance from the EU and its tolerant attitude can be attributed to a number of factors. Chief among them migration – the number one toxic topic in European politics today.

To a large extent, the success of the EU’s migration policy depends on Ankara's mood and strategic aspirations. Brussels knows that President Erdogan can easily send thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees all the way to the Greek border. At the moment, he chooses not to do it. Yet, the Turkish president has repeatedly stated (often using a threatening tone) that he cannot keep four million refugees in his country forever.

In Europe, no one wants to relive the tragic images from 2015, when around 100 boats a day were arriving on Lesvos. No government, be it right or left-wing, wishes to see crowds of impoverished people crossing into North Macedonia, walking through the Balkans and heading towards Germany and other wealthy northern countries.

In fact, several EU member states continue to refuse refugees altogether or simply accept a very small number. Given the lack of solidarity, the presence of millions of migrants in Turkey seems to suit everyone: Europeans don’t have to worry about welcoming and resettling large numbers of refugees, while Erdogan receives significant financial aid and holds a strong bargaining chip in his hands.

Of course, there are other matters electrifying the atmosphere between Brussels and Ankara, such as human rights, the rule of law and the crackdown on Kurdish opposition parties. In this context, the EU-27 give the impression that they have no idea how to deal with a country that is trying to become the ruler of the Mediterranean. Turkey has led or helped military incursions in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, testing the limits of its NATO membership and straining relations with Egypt and Israel.

This week, EU-Turkey diplomacy hit another low point with the so-called ‘sofagate’ scandal. During a high-level meeting inside the White Palace in Ankara, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen bitterly realised that there was no seat for her next to European Council President Charles Michel and President Erdogan. Von der Leyen was eventually placed on a sofa, opposite the Turkish Foreign Minister, who she outranks. Many now say the Commission President got a taste of what it means to be a woman in Turkey. (FYI: here’s the latest on sofagate).

The awkward picture reflects the belief inside the Turkish government that Brussels is a dog that often barks, but never bites. Who can really disagree with them?

 
 
 

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IT'S IN THE NUMBERS

Life expectancy at birth fell in the majority of EU member states last year due to the pandemic, official data from Eurostat shows. The biggest drop was recorded in Spain, with a loss of 1.6 years, followed by Bulgaria, with a 1.5 years decrease. Lithuania, Poland and Romania also recorded significant drops.

The Nordic countries were the only ones to observe a rise in life expectancy, with Denmark and Finland recording a 0.1-year increase while Norway, a non-EU member state, earned a 0.3-year bump.
 
EDITOR'S CHOICE

Members only: inside Romania’s 10-year-long bid to join Schengen

 
 
Romania has been part of the European Union since 2007, a long-coveted membership that has brought reforms, wealth and innovation into the country. But despite the transformational changes seen in the last decade, Romania is still not part of the Schengen area, the passport-free travel space that unites most EU countries. Staunch opposition from the Netherlands remains a major obstacle, but that’s far from the only obstacle preventing Bucharest from joining the club. Orlando Crowcroft examines Romania’s long and arduous quest for Schengen membership.
 
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Street violence continues to spread in Northern Ireland: yesterday saw another night of riots on the streets of Belfast, with people attacking the police, setting fires and throwing petrol bombs over "peace gates" separating Nationalists and Loyalists. Experts have suggested this is the first evidence that Brexit turbulence may be boiling into unrest in the British province.
 
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