The European Union’s top officials, in a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Bulgaria, asked him to release two Greek soldiers arrested for accidentally crossing the border and to stop provoking Cyprus where warships are blocking foreign energy companies from drilling for oil and gas.
But Erdogan, with the EU needing Turkey not to flood Greece with more refugees and migrants, didn’t commit to anything at the same time he said the bloc’s leaders should instead trying bring his country into the fold after more than a decade of negotiations.
Erdogan has been stepping up provocations in the Aegean, sending fighter jets into Greek airspace repeatedly, warships past Greek islands, and keeping up a partial blockade of Cyprus and the EU has responded by offering him another 3 billion euros ($3.73 billion) to help deal with tides of refugees and migrants streaming in from the Middle East and Africa.
They are fleeing war and strife and poor economic conditions and use Turkey as a jumping off point to get to Europe, almost always by first making the perilous journey across the Aegean to nearby Greek islands.
Europe has closed its borders to them, dumping the problem on Greece during a nearly eight-year-long economic and austerity crisis, with more than 64,000 stuck in the country, including some 15,000 on the islands, and most seeking asylum.
Under a swap deal with the EU that’s been suspended as Greece tries to deal with the overwhelming numbers, Turkey is supposed to take back those deemed ineligible for asylum but only a relative handful have been returned so far.
Treading lightly with Erdogan, the EU didn’t press him. European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU’s leadership had concerns about Turkey’s actions but didn’t condemn him face-to-face as they had when he wasn’t around.
Tusk made his remarks during a joint conference in Varna, Bulgaria, with Erdogan and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who said it is “indispensable” for Turkey to improve its relationship with Greece and Cyprus, leaving it at that.
There was no word on what role Greek Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras played. He had asked the EU’s help to get the soldiers back after earlier saying they would be returned quickly before it turned out they weren’t and are awaiting trial amid fears it could include espionage charges.
During a conversation with Juncker and Tusk earlier, Erdogan is said to have suggested that a solution could be found to the situation with the soldiers but didn’t offer one, Kathimerini said in a report on the meeting.
Juncker urged for a quick resolution, describing Turkey as a “strategic partner,” the usual diplomatic boilerplate language that is used to say something without saying anything.
“Hope that Turkish justice will release the two Greek soldiers for Easter,” Juncker was cited by the European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas as saying on Twitter.
Erdogan said it was a “big mistake” for the EU to exclude Turkey from the bloc but wouldn’t talk about Greece. On Cyprus, he again said any potentially lucrative revenues from oil and gas must be shared with Turkish-Cypriots occupying the northern third of the island since an unlawful 1974 Turkish invasion.
Earlier Erdogan said that EU membership remained a “strategic goal” for Turkey while calling on the bloc’s officials to remove “political and artificial” hurdles to Turkey’s membership, with Germany and France primarily standing in the way.
Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told Sto Kokkino FM Radio: “What is important for us,” he said, “is for all policies and diplomatic pressure to be used on Turkey so that its behavior no longer provokes problems in the broader region.” It hasn’t happened yet with Erdogan generally ignoring any EU entreaties and forging ahead with his own agenda.