Can Turkey benefit from continued EU enlargement?

It is easy to question the European Union these days. The COVID-19 crisis has put European solidarity to a rigorous test. Geopolitical competitors such as China and now Russia are scoring public relations points by dispatching medical supplies and crews to coronavirus-stricken Italy. 

But those who follow the EU more closely would be hardly surprised to find out that it is still inaction. On Tuesday, the General Affairs Council resolved to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania which means that enlargement has not been put on hold and the EU remains eager to assert its influence over its periphery.

Few would deny that the EU’s decision is overdue. North Macedonia is a case in point. The post-Yugoslav republic was deemed eligible to start accession talks as early as 2009. Yet its bid ran into stiff opposition from Greece over the long-standing naming issue. Though Athens and Skopje reached a settlement with the Prespa Agreement in the summer of 2018, new obstacles emerged. 

President Emmanuel Macron of France said “non”, demanding the overhaul of the accession process – obliging Brussels to revisit already closed negotiations chapters. The goal is to lock-in domestic reform and avoid the sort of backsliding seen in Hungary or Poland.  France’s views are shared by others. Netherlands and Denmark, for instance, have been particularly sceptical about Albania’s willingness to tackle organised crime and high-level corruption. Skopje and Tirana received the green light only thanks to the European Commission working out a new negotiation methodology, complying with Macron’s conditions.

North Macedonia and Albania’s saga, lasting more than a year and a half, suggest that enlargement will proceed at a slow pace. Post-Brexit, the EU’s priority is internal consolidation rather than expansion. Macron has been pushing for a common budget for the eurozone. Now he is using the COVID-19 challenge to renew his call for eurobonds to be issued jointly by all states that have adopted the common currency. 

The EU is unlikely to accept new members before 2027 when its new multi-annual financial framework will kick in. And if it opens its gates, the best placed candidate seems to be tiny Montenegro. Unlike neighbouring Serbia, which has been negotiating its entry since 2014, Montenegro is not burdened by a sovereignty dispute such as the one related to Kosovo’s status. North Macedonia will be lucky to make it in by the end of the decade or early in the 2030s. Albania will likely have to wait even further while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo will remain at the very end of the queue.

What does that mean for Turkey?  Its membership talks are, for all intents and purposes, long dormant. Yet the gradual integration of the western Balkans spells opportunities. With the deepening of the eurozone, slow-motion expansion makes a political reality of European concentric circles. The former Yugoslav republics will line up on the outer rim of the EU. 

Britain, once it finalises its trade and cooperation deal with the EU, will also gravitate around Brussels’ orbit – the Brexiteers’ mantras notwithstanding. There is a good chance Turkey will fall within a category in-between the accession-bound western Balkans and semi-detached Britain. 

The customs union binds the Turkish economy to that of the EU. With time it could be upgraded, step by step, to include services. It is not inconceivable that Turkey may obtain privileged access to the EU’s single market much like Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein. 

That would be coupled with enhanced sectoral cooperation in areas such as justice and home affairs, migration and asylum (already in place thanks to the ad hoc refugee deal from 2016), or energy.  Though membership is off the cards, and is likely to remain so given the upsurge of nativist populism across Europe, there are other forms of closer association that will accrue benefits to both Turkey and the EU.

There is a huge “but” however. It takes two to tango. To profit from European integration a la carte, Turkey should modify its course. EU leaders won’t accommodate Ankara’s demand for updating the customs union for instance, unless there is a degree of political liberalisation in the country.

So long as Turkish civil society is facing repression and the political opposition is under severe pressure, policymakers in key European capitals and in Brussels will have little room to wiggle. It is true that the EU has long squandered its leverage over Turkey’s domestic affairs. Yet conditionality remains one of the few foreign policy instruments it has at its disposal. The golden era of enlargement is far in the past. But its legacy lives on.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.