Holding an EU-Turkey summit in Bulgaria is already eloquent enough to evaluate our relationship with the EU. I remember, in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Soviet system, meeting a Bulgarian diplomat in the French Consulate in Istanbul. He asked me whether I really thought Turkey could become a member state before the year 2000. I remember having given him a very confusing answer, but I also remember having added a touch of humor by telling, "We will certainly become members after Bulgaria." The diplomat looked back at me with eyes wide open and said: "Are you pulling my leg? Bulgaria will never attain Turkey's development and capacity in a hundred years."
I never thought at that time (which was 25 years ago) that my prophecy would come to a reality so bluntly. Bulgaria and Romania were made members of the EU in 2007, in spite of the fact that neither of them fulfilled the accession criteria. They were accepted because they could carry out the necessary reforms better within the EU rather than in the waiting room. That was also the guiding idea of the EU for nine countries, back in 1976, when they thought it would be a better idea to include Greece (which, by the way, was not ready at all for membership at the time), to consolidate the latter's democracy.Turkey, for a variety of reasons, mainly stemming from culturalism but also from practical viewpoints, has never been treated with a similar understanding. The period when we approached closest to becoming a member was in 2005. Despite all odds, the accession negotiations have started, due chiefly to the proficiency of British diplomacy. The opening of negotiations coincided with the British presidency, without whose diligence we could have seen a major political crisis. Nevertheless, the door was at last ajar, and the Turkish government was putting amazing extra efforts to get in line with the Acquis Communautaire, the EU legislation, together with immense steps taken regarding public liberties in Turkey.
This did not suffice; very blunt sabotage was staged during June 2006 to suspend eight chapters, on the grounds that Greek Cypriots planes and ships could not use Turkish ports and airports. Turkey did take important steps at that time, even offering as a goodwill gesture of the opening of one port and one airport, in exchange for an alleviated embargo over Northern Cyprus, as officially promised by the EU (but vetoed by the Greek Cypriot Government afterward). At that time, the EU perhaps had the excuse of not having discovered the true nature of Greek Cyprus; they have had many opportunities since that this state was mainly a submarine for the Russian Federation, especially with the deep financial crisis in 2009-2010. Not that discovering the true nature of Greek Cyprus changed in any way the positioning of the EU concerning the Cypriot problem.
Today, the whole situation is almost diametrically different. The accession negotiations have been de facto frozen first, then almost officially suspended (but not repelled). Turkey, which was once a soft power, exporting stability in the region, is in the obligation to send its army to fight in a neighboring country. We have lost all perspective of total normalization with the EU, let alone membership. The only functioning dimension is the conjectural agreement regarding illegal immigration. In that sense, the EU has already disbursed a first envelope of 3 billion euros, which was followed by a second envelope of the same importance, accepted a few days ago by the Council of Ministers.
The fact that the long-awaited summit between Turkey and the EU takes place in Varna, instead of Brussels, shows that the EU wants to give a low-profile appearance to this meeting, probably to calm down the European Parliament and the public opinion. The European Parliament is blasting the Turkish government and its policies, and a very large number of the member states do have hostile stances against the government and presidency in Turkey.
On the other hand, the customs union, the bedrock of our relations, needs desperately to be revised to function properly, especially regarding free trade agreements with third countries. In such a tense situation, with a very critical Progress Report that will be made public in April, EU-Turkey relations are really in a very delicate and dangerous junction.
However, I personally do not think that the summit will give way to the severing of official and institutional relations. The ground we have lost is the fact that in 12 years, Turkey in the eyes of the EU moved from the status of a negotiating candidate country into a regional power, too important to abandon but definitely too far from fulfilling acceptable levels of democratic functioning.