The comfortable illusion of Turkey’s EU candidacy

Today, Turkish rulers take every opportunity to disregard the European Union’s fundamentals in order to claim Turkey’s singularity, if not superiority. The EU paradigm has become a liability in the face of an increasingly authoritarian if not totalitarian regime in which the arbitrary of the one-man rule has become the rule.

The EU membership perspective has entirely disappeared from Turkey’s political agenda since early 2021. The centuries-old anti-Westernism of Turkish politics is now riding a wave and West-bashing has become the favourite topic of Turkish political life. Ankara, through its actions and declarations, rejects EU membership even when it pays lip service to lure “hot money” lenders or to charm Turkey appeasers in Europe. As for the opposition, EU membership does not mean more than the regime.

Bilateral relations with the EU member-states’ politicians and public opinions are at their lowest, where any non-complacent declaration or action is countered with accusations of “Nazis” and “fascists.” Some governments have introduced the rebuttal of Turkey’s membership into their governmental action strategy, like Austria and Germany. Paris has directly stated a similar decision to Ankara. Today every European decision-maker knows that, in Brussels’ terminology, Turkey does not comply with the Copenhagen criteria, the compulsory benchmark for every candidate country.

Such a state of affairs has already been translated into Council conclusions, on June 26, 2018, two days after the presidential election which completed the regime change. “The Council notes that Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union. Turkey’s accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing and no further work towards the modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen.”

The declaration is short of a formal end of membership negotiations as it looked difficult to reach the unanimity, with some member-states fearing publicly antagonising Turkey for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, Turkey’s exclusion is indirectly mentioned in several official documents. Finally, there is no more political dialogue on issues of common concern, except the transactional Refugee Deal.

Membership negotiations now put aside by a tacit agreement of parties, there remain two issues on which Ankara seems still expectant: the revision of the Customs Union and the Schengen visa waiver for its citizens.

In effect since January 1, 1996, the Customs Union has long needed revising. Advantages that Turkey acquired then have been eroded over the years. The Customs Union was always a step before full membership; short of membership, it became pointless. Anyway, with the deep freeze in formal relations it becomes irrelevant to go ahead with any revision.

Still, there are some European decision-makers who still dream of making the revision of Customs Union conditional on economic and political good governance, as floated through the so-called “positive agenda.” Alas, they tend to forget how anti-European the regime’s codes are, which makes any rules- and values-based interaction unthinkable and unworkable.

The EU cannot easily close transactional deals pertaining to its interests and security with a Turkey that does not feel bound by any membership or partnership obligation. From now on, it is inappropriate to bet on its EU (and eventually NATO) commitments to, for instance, ease tensions with neighbours, as the failure of the EU membership bid cancels the achievements of the last 20 years in terms of good-neighbourly relations with member-states, particularly Greece. The bellicose rhetoric and actions of recent years against a number of EU countries, politicians and citizens are strong signals of this centrifugal drive.

All things considered, Ankara’s modus operandi contradicts the EU’s norms, standards, values and principles, which simply constitute obstacles to the “smooth” functioning of the regime. Likewise, this is why the regime in Ankara can never be reformed.

Unilateral Turkish moves are not limited to political or diplomatic relations. Today two mammoth infrastructure projects that have a direct impact on EU countries and which require due environmental impact assessment are going ahead without it. These are the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, built, not surprisingly, by Russia’s Rosatom, across the water from Cyprus and situated in an earthquake zone. The other is the so-called “Istanbul Canal,” an artificial waterway next to the Bosporus, considered by the scientific community as potentially lethal for the entire Black Sea basin, its riparian countries, including the rivers feeding it, the Marmara Sea, and beyond.

Appeasing the regime in Ankara by considering that it is still a member of European and Atlantic communities is a pipe dream. The more the West appeases Turkey, the more Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will use and abuse Western angsts, and the more his regime’s lifecycle will be extended.

The regime in Ankara has become a security issue for Europe and the West which needs to be appropriately addressed.

(A version of this article was originally published by the Kathimerini newspaper and is reproduced by permission.)