Yaşar Yakış
Jan 12 2018

Are Turkey-EU relations due a boost?

Turkey-EU relations have hit rock bottom. They cannot and should not get any worse. Therefore, an initiative was needed to turn the trend upward. This is what both sides are trying to do now.

The need to normalise relations is more important for Turkey, because it is isolated in the international arena as a result of ill-advised policies. On the other hand, the EU has also become aware of the contribution that Turkey brings to the protection of the EU countries’ interests in the Middle East.

Turkey has common borders with two most important crisis areas in the region; Syria and Iraq. The flow of refugees from the region to the EU countries is a major problem that Brussels can solve more easily by cooperating with Turkey. Similar cooperation may be useful on the issue of Islamic State fighters seeking to return to their countries of origin in the EU.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Paris last week has to be viewed in this context. There are several reasons for starting with Paris: Relations with France are less bad than with many other major EU countries. Erdoğan may have appreciated French President Emmanuel Macron’s straightforward style more than the traditional diplomatic tone of other European leaders.

France has a major stake in Syria, because of its historical links. France’s approach to the Syrian crisis has some commonalities with Turkey. They both believe that President Bashar Assad has no place in the future of Syria though France supports the idea that Assad has to stay at least during the transition to democracy, while Turkey prefers to see him step aside at once.

France shares to a great extent Turkey’s view on U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem policy and there are similarities in their approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. France wants to cooperate with Turkey in tracing the Islamic State members who flee Syria and Iraq.

Despite these common interests, France still insists on the need for improvement in Turkey’s human rights record. “The latest developments and Turkey’s choice do not allow any progress on the engaged path (in Turkey’s EU accession process),” Macron told a news conference held after the talks with Erdoğan.

Macron was even more outspoken on the fundamental rights issues and said: “Freedom of expression is indivisible. An opinion, if it does not incite to commit a crime or does not promote terrorism, is an opinion and should not be punished”.

This cannot be said more clearly.

A similar meeting took place between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel. This meeting could not be held at the top level, because German Chancellor Angela Merkel was busy trying to form a coalition government.

Turkey has strong multidimensional relations with Germany because of the sizeable ethnic-Turkish community in Germany, which ranges from 2.5 to 4 million, depending upon how you define an ethnic Turk. Several subjects for cooperation were discussed by the ministers, but there was no mention of Turkey’s accession process, because the real politik requires focus on what is feasible.

Turkey’s relations with the EU are severely damaged because of unnecessarily harsh statements made by the leaders on both side. It may take time to go back to the enviable set of relations of early 2000s. Turkey’s prospects of joining the EU sometimes in the future is still an open question. Germany’s position of giving Turkey “privileged partnership” status, which dates back to the time when Merkel was in opposition, remains unchanged.

There is a nuance between this stance and that of Macron. France does not spell out the words of “privileged partnership”, and it does not close the doors in case Turkey fulfils all the EU’s criteria.

Turkey does not want to be the country that leaves the negotiation table. Since it is not easy for major EU countries to shut the door for Turkey, the present uncertain situation may stay for some time.

Resumption of the accession process is conceivable only if there is a substantive paradigm change in Turkey like the one that happened in the early years of the AKP government.