24th Mar 2018


What they didn't tell you at the EU-Turkey summit

  • Turkey today is more the Turkey of 1995, than the reformist state of the 2000's (Photo:

Many Turks are fond of begrudging Europe for its double standards and lack of respect for their country.

Not anymore, if you ask PM Ahmet Davutoglu following Sunday's (29 November) summit in Brussels. Turkey has obtained long awaited recognition for its geopolitical weight and clenched a deal.

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In exchange for stemming the refugee flow from war-ravaged Syria, Ankara is to receive €3 billion in financial assistance. A new chapter is expected to be opened to "re-energize" stalled accession talks. In deference to Turkey, EU dignitaries also accepted to hold summits twice a year.

Most importantly, Turkish citizens could cheer at the prospect of visa-free travel to the Schengen zone by late 2016, on the proviso that the EU-Turkey readmission agreement is fully implemented and a road map with technical conditions is fulfilled.

Is this a turning point in the EU-Turkey saga? Not quite.

As long as the Cyprus issue remains unresolved, hailing the summit as a breakthrough would be stretching it too far. Talk about opening a new accession chapter - most likely on monetary policy - has been in the air since mid-2014, while efforts to open far more relevant chapters such as justice, human rights, and energy continue to be blocked by Cyprus.

Just like the opening of the last chapter two years ago - on regional policy - made virtually no impact on the dynamic of EU-Turkey relations, opening one more now will likely go unnoticed. With 14 chapters opened, 21 to go and a negotiation that has been dragging on for a decade, it will take far more than a single chapter to revitalize the moribund process.

Moreover, the general political climate in Turkey does not suggest a growing convergence with EU norms and standards.

The centralisation of power, the resumed conflict with the PKK, pressure on the media and the assassination of a prominent human rights activist (whoever bears responsibility) makes Turkey in 2015 more similar to Turkey in 1995, not the hopeful country which the once reformist AKP party was leading in the early 2000s.

It is not by rationing one accession chapter every year or two that the EU can hope to reverse the political tide in Turkey and reacquire the role of a catalyst for democratic reform.

Quite the contrary, opening a chapter now - and a chapter that is not directly related to human rights issues - signals to a radiant Davutoglu that EU norms are up for grabs.

All things being equal, the present dynamic pushes Turkey into the privileged partnership that Europe’s Christian Democrats once called for without describing in much detail.

Its main tenets include the EU-Turkey Customs Union upgrade, with the inclusion of services and procurement, concessions on free movement of people, and some cooperation on foreign policy, notably on high-profile issues such as migration and energy.

At its core though, this is a partnership cemented by partly converging interests - not values. 

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reason to be jubilant. After his electoral triumph of 1 November, he has now won points in Brussels. The foreign policy coup may also give him cover to accommodate Russia, following the crisis triggered by the recent downing of the SU-24 at the Syrian border, without losing face.

However, Turkey's democrats and liberals, and indeed all those Europeans who believe in Turkey’s European future, are left with a dilemma: accept the EU offer in the hope that it will soften the government's approach to opponents? Or reject it because it means selling out to Turkey and turning a blind eye to the government’s crackdown on rights and freedoms?

It is Groucho Marx's "I don't want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member" all over again.

Politicians on both sides should know that things could well go wrong. The removal of visas is not a done deal. It could easily fall apart or be undone or diluted under pressure from the rising anti-immigration parties in France and elsewhere as elections draw near.

Asylum seekers might continue arriving in great numbers, opting for routes other than Turkey.

Customs Union talks with Ankara can face deadlock much like the membership negotiations. One can be sure that mutual recrimination and finger pointing there will be aplenty. And even if the Action Plan were to be fully implemented, it would by no means guarantee a virtuous circle of Turkish reform and European integration.

Yet there is still hope. While the EU may be reenergizing Turkey’s accession process today for reasons that have nothing to do with Turkey’s Europeanization, the outcome could be positive nonetheless.

If a settlement is reached in the coming months in Cyprus, the ensuing unfreezing of most EU accession chapters could neatly dovetail with the new political climate in Europe, in which Turkey’s strategic value is finally appreciated.

And at that point there could really be a genuine revitalization of EU-Turkey relations and Turkey’s reform momentum.

Not all things are done for the rights reasons. But maybe, just maybe, the outcome in this case could still end up being positive.

Dimitar Bechev is visiting scholar at the Centre for European Studies, Harvard University, and director of the Sofia-based European Policy Institute. Nathalie Tocci is deputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome

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