24th Mar 2018


What is all the EU-Turkey uproar about?

  • Centuries-old anti-Western sentiment in Turkish politics is now riding the wave, and Europe-bashing is becoming a favourite topic. (Photo: EUobserver)

For some time now, Turkey-Europe relations have been reduced to monologues and non-coordinated actions by decision-makers on both sides.

Turkish leaders take every opportunity to disregard European norms, values and principles in order to claim Turkey’s singularity, if not superiority. This trend has accelerated since the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, after which the ruling regime happily took the opportunity to suppress all meaningful dissent.

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Centuries-old anti-Western sentiment in Turkish politics is now riding the wave, and Europe-bashing is the favourite topic of endless Turkish electoral consultations.

EU accession negotiations are stuck with no less than 14 chapters blocked in connection with the ongoing disputes over Cyprus. The northern part of the island is under Turkish control.

There is no progress whatsoever on the 15 chapters under negotiation. Talks have been concluded on only one chapter so far and the Turkish side is, understandably so, not interested in opening the remaining 3 chapters as they pertain to social policy, competition policy and public procurement.

Poor relations

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s yearly Progress Report on Turkey’s advancement towards membership is thrown ostensibly into the wastepaper basket.

Relations with the European Parliament are at their lowest level. The latest recommendation of the parliament to freeze the negotiations with Ankara has been declared null and void by Turkey's EU minister.

The rapporteur for Turkey at the EU parliament is an undeclared persona non grata in the country. Indeed, the last meeting of the Joint Parliamentary Commission between members of the Turkish parliament and the EU parliament dates back to May 2015.

Bilateral relations with EU member states’ politicians are also at their lowest point. We see a situation where any non-complacent declaration or action from European side is countered with accusations of being “Nazis” or “fascists”.

There is no more political dialogue on any issue of common concern except the shameful refugee deal of March 2016, in which Turkish authorities are acting on behalf of the EU to patrol for refugees moving towards the European continent.

Turkish society no longer feels the benefits of the so-called pre-accession phase, during which a candidate country thoroughly prepares for membership.

The harmonisation of national legislation with the acquis communautaire, the body of shared EU laws and principles, already brings with it a sort of preview of what's to come after joining the bloc. Although it could be felt strongly between 2000 and 2005, the EU dynamics began to slowly fade away ever since.

Sub-committees in charge of EU preparations in the Turkish administration are being dismantled and the pre-accession funds (around €4 billion for 2014-2020) are under-used due to a lack of adequate projects.

All in all, there is an obvious backlash in terms of European political and economic and criteria. This was demonstrated spectacularly by the political push for the reinstitution of the death penalty, abolished since the year 2000.

Today, Ankara openly rejects EU membership through its actions and intentions.

European opposition

On the European front, the EU commission - i.e. the secretariat in charge of preparing any candidate country for membership - is busy with paper pushing, as the negotiations are basically at a total standstill. This is due to the opposition of Austria and the Netherlands, in addition to the above mentioned “old” blockages.

Moreover, there has been a decision to halt any substantive contact with Turkish authorities, at least until the end of German elections in autumn.

The Schengen visa exemption for Turkish citizens, which has been negotiated since 2013, looks impossible to implement under the present regime.

MEPs are now, with a few exceptions, against Turkey’s membership, especially since the 16 April referendum.

In the EU member states, Turkish authorities had been marginalised even before the present strains - now they are avoided even for photo-ops.

Finally, every single European decision-maker knows that Turkey doesn’t comply with the Copenhagen Criteria, a compulsory set of benchmarks for every future candidate country.

To cap it all off, following an unfree and unfair referendum, Turkey has now been forced to adopt a presidential regime without checks or balances - much like the 1930s fascist governments of continental Europe.

So, what is all of this noise about pretending, on both sides, that membership negotiations are on track and relations are going to continue like before?

What is all of this fuss by some European politicians who are suddenly choosing to stand by the Turkish democrats, especially those in jail for months?

What is all of this tragic comedy by Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign affairs chief, to declare to the same democrats, with a disgraceful disdain for the European values, that Europe “respects” the result of the referendum, i.e. the choice of a fascist regime?

Let’s start with the Turkish obsession of maintaining a relationship by angrily reacting to warnings about human rights violations and other misdoings.

Economic vulnerability is probably the answer.

Economic angle

The administration of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has accumulated mistakes over years, refrained from in-depth reforms and ended up by becoming dependent of high interest rates to continue to attract speculative capital, to run the economy and fill the deficits.

High unemployment, reduced growth, feeble research and development, a weak education system, poor savings rates, the drying up of foreign direct investment from EU countries - all these structural problems are potentially explosive.

The regime - despite its natural tendency towards Europe-bashing - naively thinks that the present status quo with the EU is sufficient to keep the economy afloat. No more, no less.

As for the Europeans, things are more complicated - as can be seen in the chaotic responses to a clearly lifeless candidacy.

Firstly, the failed candidacy of Turkey since 1973 is a unique case in the history of enlargement. Europe does not have an institutional memory on how to deal with the problems it throws up, exactly like Brexit.

Secondly, the economic and strategic interests are a cause for concern.

In 2016, Turkey was the EU's 4th biggest export destination with €78 billion worth of trade, and 5th biggest import source at €66 billion.

Many of these companies are European at both ends, yet they display a cautious approach to any radical move.

Strategically speaking, Europe and the West in general are adamant about keeping Turkey in Nato and out of the Russian sphere of influence. As for the refugee deal, although it is important, it is still a temporary issue which will lose steam sooner or later.

Thirdly, speaking gently to Turkish democrats may be a cost-free way of soothing consciences. However, the fact remains that the “support” cannot go beyond words and, without governmental commitment, there is no viable indirect channel to civil society.

Fourthly, and these concerns notwithstanding, Europeans seem rather pleased with the failed candidacy of Turkey. Right from the beginning, the prospect of Turkey joining the EU has never inspired a completely determined and resourceful response from Europe.

Open foes

In addition to open foes like Nicolas Sarkozy, a former French president, the EU considered Turkey’s candidacy to be no different from any other candidacy.

Today, the historic rendezvous that started in 1959 has lamentably ended at the cost of all. The official end of negotiations is not 'if', but instead 'when'.

Now if one needs to be serious and concentrate on the “achievable” regarding the future of EU-Turkey relations, as well as the containment of the regime, there are not many options left.

The revision of the customs union agreement of 1995 as the second best formula looks bleak, both technically and politically.

A customs union cannot function without the final objective of membership. Politically, those who hope to tie the revision of the agreement into conditions of economic and political good governance are following a pipe dream - in view of the present regime.

One should understand that the Erdogan regime’s codes are structurally anti-European. Likewise, member states that are against the continuation of negotiations are also against the revision of the customs agreement.

The free trade agreement (FTA) option still remains, like with any other non-EU country, but maybe an enhanced one in the case of Turkey, which has already integrated to a certain degree.

As for the containment, with a lack of any concrete leverage, there are no quick fixes.

The only principle, though, should be to avoid the appeasement of that kind of regime, unlike what had happened in Munich in 1938.

Cengiz Aktar is a professor of political science, and senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Center

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