ISTANBUL - A picture of a smiling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flanked by EU President Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker adorned much of Turkey's pro-government media this week.
“Erdogan got his picture of his handshake in Brussels, which is really only what he wanted,” said political science professor Cengiz Aktar, “because he is looking for legitimacy in his new position as strongman of Turkey.”
Erdogan's narrow referendum victory extending his presidential powers remains mired in vote-rigging allegations. EU leaders, unlike U.S. President Donald Trump, had refrained from endorsing his success.
During the referendum campaign, Turkey's relations with the EU plummeted, with Erdogan describing some EU members as behaving like Nazis because they refused to allow Turkish ministers to campaign among Turkish diaspora voters.
“The pictures that emerged with Juncker and Tusk suggest a reduction of tensions and a more relaxed atmosphere,” said Semih Idiz, political columnist of the Al Monitor website. But Idiz played down any talk of any new rapprochement in relations.
“Bottom line is nether side wants to go to some kind of nasty severance of ties or divorce. There are too many issues that require cooperation. I think they will muddle through, and I think that is the message that came out. Although both sides had theirs, in terms of issues that are important, the main thing is that they are not going to escalate tensions,” said Idiz.
“We discussed the need to cooperate,” Tusk said following the meeting in a tweet.
Turkey plays its part
Monday’s suicide bombing of a pop concert in Manchester, England, served as a reminder of Turkey's importance in countering terrorism, with a Turkish official confirming the suspected bomber had traveled through Turkey to Britain. With Turkey bordering Syria and Iraq, Europe's security forces depend heavily on Ankara in sharing intelligence and monitoring those traveling to Europe.
The EU is also dependent on Ankara to continue to honor last March's agreement to stem the flood of refugees and migrants into Europe. “This is perhaps one of the few and certainly important pieces of leverage Ankara has over Brussels," said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institute in Brussels. "We have been hearing from Ankara over the past few months that if the EU does not fulfill its end of the bargain and does not deliver on visa freedom, even under current circumstances Turkey will not continue with the refugee deal."
Before leaving for Brussels, Erdogan pointedly reminded the EU of its commitments. “We don't aim to break away from the EU, but the EU shall take its responsibilities, too. The EU cannot see Turkey [as] a beggar. It does not have such a right,” he said.
Turkey crackdown to continue
Brussels insists any visa free travel is dependent on Ankara's narrowing of its legal definition of terrorism to harmonize it with EU law. Tens of thousands of people in Turkey have been prosecuted for terrorism offenses in a crackdown since last July's failed coup.
But Erdogan has ruled out any letup in the crackdown, or lifting of emergency rule introduced after the coup. On Friday, Ankara's governor, under emergency powers, issued a decree imposing a night curfew on any acts of protests, including chanting or playing music, or issuing of press statements.
Tensions with Washington could also be a factor in Ankara's wanting to avoid a collapse in EU ties. Trump's decision to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters, considered by Ankara as terrorists, in their fight against Islamic State has strained bilateral ties. Those strains weren't alleviated by Erdogan's visit this month to Washington.