In the presence of ecclesiastic and political dignitaries, the historic Bulgarian church of Sveti Stefan (Saint Stephen), overlooking the Golden Horn on the Bosporus, will be reopened in Istanbul on December 7 after extensive restoration work. Known as the “iron church” because of the materials used for its construction in 1898, St. Stephen’s will be after seven years of work. Present at the re-dedication ceremony will be Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch Neofit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
The restoration of the church, which was built of prefabricated cast iron, came at a cost of $16 million that was jointly born by the government of Turkey and Bulgaria. The ceremony comes while Turkish President Erdogan is renewing appeals to the European Union to allow Turkey’s accession to the EU. While relations between the neighboring countries have been sour at times recently, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Borisov said recently, "Let us forget about the hypocrisy on Turkey's accession process to the EU," adding that "the best thing to do is sit down and make a special agreement between Turkey and the EU."
As part of its charm offensive over the last ten years, Turkey has sought to restore 14 churches and synagogues in various parts of the country, including the Great Synagogue in Edirne, St. Nicholas church on the Aegean island of Gökçeada, and St. George church in Istanbul.
2017 was the worst year for Turkey’s relations with the West. Turkish President Erdogan will be in Paris this week to mend fences with French President Emmanuel Macron, to discuss the ongoing situation in Syria, migration, and the status of Jerusalem. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu goes to Germany this weekend to talk with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to discuss the normalization of bilateral relations, which nearly reached a breaking point last year. Erdogan insults directed at the Netherlands and Germany have strained relations in the past, but have seen improvement since EU members supported a UN resolution, co-sponsored by Turkey, denouncing President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, having declared Jerusalem the “eternal capital” of Israel.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte remarked near the end of 2017 that making amends with Turkey is a good idea. “I think that it will be good if relations are repaired. Turkey is a NATO partner,” Rutte told the Dutch daily De Telegraaf. The Netherlands is not only Turkey’s NATO ally but also Turkey’s biggest investor, having $22 billion on the table. Nonetheless, Erdogan has accused the Netherlands of Nazi-like behavior when Rutte refused to allow Turkish politicians to canvass Turkish expatriates in the Netherlands eligible to vote in Turkey’s constitutional referendum. Germany did the same. Changes to the constitution would turn Turkey into a presidential system, thus strengthening Erdogan’s hand. in an interview. He added that ministerial contacts aimed at improving ties between The Hague and Ankara were also continuing.
Erdogan may be reluctant to face a total break-down in relations with NATO and the EU because of the repercussions it could have for Turkey. He has heralded the phone conversations he has had recently with Pope Francis, and the leaders of Germany and France.
There remain issues for Turkey and EU partners to discuss. For example, while the top diplomats of Germany and Turkey talked telephonically on December 22 and agreed to iron out differences, Germany has been insistent on resolving them. Turkey had been holding German human rights activist Peter Steudtner on terrorism charges but recently released him and others after German Foreign Minister Gabriel referred to Steudtner and other Germans held by Turkey as “Ankara’s hostages.” A point of contention between the two countries is the treatment meted out to Deniz Yucel, a German-Turkish journalist who was being held in solitary confinement since February 2017 on espionage charges. While Yucel’s conditions have since improved, the Yucel case remains a bone of contention. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu told German media last week that he was not happy over the delay in the preparation of the indictment against Yucel, and claimed that the government was trying to speed this up.
While Turkey has signalled that it is optimistic about joining the EU, a goal of many years, the deteriorating state of democracy and human rights in Turkey continues to pose obstacles not only to advancing its EU membership bid but also to fully normalize ties between Turkey and Europe. For example, French President Macron recently described Turkey as an authoritarian state where press freedoms are curbed and journalists incarcerated. Hedging his bets before meeting with Erdogan this weekend, Macron said that he opposes ending dialogue with countries that do not share French standards on the freedom of speech. Retired Turkish Ambassador Uluc Ozulker, who served in Paris in 2002-2005, told Al-Monitor, “The EU has made its position on Turkey’s membership bid clear and has forced Ankara into a corner in this regard.” Ozulker said that Europe does not want to push Turkey too much, out of geopolitical concerns. “It wants to encourage Turkey to remain close to Europe without becoming an EU member,” he said.
Ozulker said that remarks made by Bulgarian President Borisov, whose country took over on the EU’s term presidency on January 1, shows that Borissov believes in frank dealings with Turkey. “We should stop being two-faced about Turkey’s EU membership. It is best if we sit down and work out a special agreement between Turkey and the EU,” Borissov told the Bulgarian state broadcaster BNT.
However, Turkey has already rejected anything short of full membership and was also displeased with German Foreign Minister Gabriel’s suggestion that the Brexit deal with the United Kingdom could provide a model for Turkey-EU ties.