Waiting for the March 25/26 Summit

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The March 25/26 European Council has been ever since the December 10-11 Summit a matter of high expectations on part Greek public opinion as well as – in a more focused way – on part of the Greek political class. The reason for such centrality is that Greek-Turkish relations (and Cyprus-Turkey relations, at that) were supposed to be addressed, be it in an indirect way through a new EuroTurkish equilibrium sought in Brussels.

Expectations of this sort were probably justified when first expressed – i.e. when the March 2021 horizon was first set as the expected follow-up of the December 20 European Council Conclusions (points 30-35, if one has to be more precise). The problem is – as things stand today, days before the 25/26 event – that the Summit Agenda highlights officially posted at the EU website cover “the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Single Market, industrial policy, digital transformation and the economy, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Russia”. The Summit will be held – after all – by teleconference due to the pandemic; this will contribute to a lowering of expectations.

If one goes further down the agenda, one sees that direct the mention made of Turkey/EU-Turkey relations consists in “discussion of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean”, to be based on a “report on EU-Turkey relations to be submitted the High Representative and the Commission”. It is no secret for anyone even remotely tracking the progress of EU-Turkey negotiations, which often amount to Berlin/Ankara horsetrading mainly over the refugee issue, that the “positive agenda for Turkey” dimension will play a central role in the March 25/26 get-together of European leaders.

Last week’s teleconference between the Presidents of the European Council, the Commission and Turkey clearly put the emphasis on de-escalation in Eastern Mediterranean and confidence-building moves; the perspective of a new round of talks over the Cyprus issue was raised. So, when Reuters hosted leaks that even existing sanctions on Turkish (TPAO) oil executives over “unauthorized drilling activities” in Cyprus EEZ would be frozen and “the diplomatic track would be prioritized”, the story sounded quite convincing.

Of course, sum mitering is a peculiar art form – even in Zoom, or some such teleconferencing mode. But it would need a leap of faith for Greece for one to entertain hopes that any sanctions (especially the kind that bites, i.e. of an economic nature) might be brought to play in a Greek-Turkish context. Especially so when the recent (62th) round of Greece-Turkey exploratory talks was concluded in Athens, with a possible visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to Ankara discussed, to meet his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. Just note the co-incidence: the Charles Michel-Ursula von der Leyen-Recep Tayyip Erdogan teleconference reportedly ended with the perspective of their meeting, soon enough and Covid-19 allowing, in Ankara.

Were one to look for a more functional outcome from the March 25/26 Summit, one might be best advised to focus on other Agenda points; namely “the response to the Covid-19 pandemic”, where the idea of a “Green certificate” allowing for the tourist trade to blossom anew will seek much-needed support. But also some push is expected so as to bring the NGEU project – already short of breath – back on track.

As for EastMed/Turkey matters, it should come as no surprise if the March 2021 discussions, being a follow-up to December 2020 talks (themselves a resumption of October 2020 Summit work) get adjourned for – say – next June. For such an outcome, the Covid-mandated impossibility to hold the March Summit with the physical presence of EU leaders may well serve as the optimal pretext.