The death of the EU’s ‘positive agenda’ for Turkey

According to Turkish professor Cengiz Aktar, the European Union’s positive agenda for Turkey died on April 6. This may well be so. President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stepped down from their ivory tower at the top of the Berlaymont building and were confronted with reality in Turkey (at least, in a modified form).

After being relegated to the sofa in their meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, von der Leyen afterwards declared that human rights issues are non-negotiable and have an absolute priority. She explained this was made clear to Erdoğan, but this was probably water off a duck’s back.

As the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Nacho Sánchez Amor told Turkish journalists in a webinar on World Press Freedom Day, Turkey has all the architecture of a democracy but isn’t one in practice.

He added: “I heard from Turkey that the European Union is offering Turkey a positive agenda. Be careful, guys. It’s not the European Union, it’s the European Council. Because the European Parliament never surrenders about a domestic agenda in Turkey. We have decided to struggle and to fight with you for the complete democratisation of the country.”

Amor emphasised: “Our main issue is to stand for values. It’s to offer some oxygen to the civil society in Turkey. It’s to try to cover and protect you with the means we have. And the only real leverage we have on Turkey is that Turkey is a candidate country to the European Union, and that allows me to enter and to deal with domestic issues in Turkey.”

The European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) concludes in its latest report that Turkey’s lack of progress in converging with European standards and values has transformed into a full withdrawal, marked by a stark regression in three main areas: rule of law and fundamental rights, regressive institutional reforms and a confrontational foreign policy.

In effect, EU-Turkey relations have become progressively more transactional. Set against Erdoğan’s declared intention “to turn a new page” in Turkey’s relations with the EU, AFET calls on Turkey to reassess and credibly demonstrate the sincerity of its commitment.  

As far as Michel and von der Leyen’s recent pilgrimage to Ankara in search of new momentum is concerned, as I noted in Euractiv, Erdoğan effectively gave EU the finger. However, as AFET says, the EU should not confuse Turkey with the policies of its current government and should maintain its support for Turkey’s civil society. 

In February, the German Marshall Fund (GMF) held a webinar “In Search for a Positive Agenda” in EU-Turkey relations. A second, held at the end of April, was more tentatively entitled “Towards a Positive Agenda?” and the speakers were more focused on the issue of a values-based union.

Peter Clever, from the EU’s Social and Economic Committee, was unequivocal. He asked a central question: Where are the good, promising business relationships in the long term? He answered: Where there is democracy, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of expression, protection of minorities from discrimination, and rule of law applies.

This was underlined by Volkswagen’s decision not to build a new $.1.1 billion plant in Turkey, which would have employed 4,000. With reference to Turkey’s involvement in the war in Syria its CEO Herbert Diess said: “We are not laying the foundation stone next to a battlefield.” This bears out Professor Nathan Jensen’s research that democratic countries attract as much as 70 percent more FDI than their authoritarian counterparts.

More specifically, Peter Clever said that if we want to come to new, forward-looking agreements between the EU and Turkey, it is up to Erdoğan to respect and implement the final rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Günter Seufert from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) believes a new framework for EU-Turkey relations should include conditionality. For example, that the implementation of ECHR decisions should be a precondition for high-level dialogues.

This is a far cry from the European Council’s statement in March, where the modernisation of the Customs Union was prioritised, and rule of law and fundamental rights were relegated to “dialogue”.

The GMF’s public opinion survey, “Turkish Perceptions of the European Union”, makes it clear that a considerable section of Turkish society still looks to the EU as an example, particularly the younger age group (18-24). For example, in the level of trust placed in the ECHR, the International Court of Justice, and the EU outranked that placed in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which Turkey is also a member.

As Seufert concluded, the EU is still needed as an anchor for political development in Turkey. But Amor also challenged his Turkish audience: “You are not aligned with the European Union - you are diverging in every respect. You have to want to be a real democracy - not because of incentives.”   

U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to make human rights a top priority in his foreign policy and the EU should follow suit. The problem lies in the coordination of a common policy between the European Parliament, the European Council, and the Council of Europe.

Maybe change is coming. If the Greens come to power in Germany, there will be greater emphasis on human rights, rule of law, arms exports controls, and women’s rights. rather than the supine appeasement policy led by the present chancellor.