Cengiz Aktar
Nov 01 2017

The EU and Turkey - What comes after the end of the road?

The European Union held a series of meetings between Oct. 17 and 19 designed to set the tone for a radical shift in relations, as recommended by a growing number of politicians in EU Member States as well as the EU institutions.

The Commission is tasked with presenting the Council with a roadmap aiming to unravel the present ambiguity whereby Turkey has the status of a country negotiating for accession but no negotiations are taking place. There is not even a shared willingness for it to become a member. The final objective is to downgrade Turkey from “negotiating status for membership to the EU” as it is thoroughly disqualified from that status according to the membership benchmarks. The country is far short of complying with the so-called Copenhagen Political Criteria, a conditio sine qua non for negotiations.

Sixteen out of 33 negotiating chapters for entry into the EU have been opened in the 12 years to-date (the last one in June 2016) since Turkey has been a formal candidate, a poor performance unmatched in the history of enlargement. Fourteen chapters are “un-openable” due to Cyprus-related disagreements.

Yet the disengagement might not stop there. IPA (Instrument for Pre-Accession) funds aimed to prepare the candidates for membership look increasingly irrelevant for Turkey. Amounting at €4.45 billion for the period 2014-2020, they are due to be reassessed at the mid-term review now taking place  to reflect the irrelevance of “negotiations”. Indeed so far only €368.3 million has been contracted and payments stood at €258.4 million at the end of August 2017.

On another critical dossier, there are ever louder voices inside the EU to stop short of revising the customs union between the bloc and Turkey – an economically vital agreement for the latter, functioning since 1996 but needing an overhaul after 21 years.  

A Schengen visa exemption for citizens of Turkey, which has been being negotiated by both parties since 2013, looks impossible to implement under present conditions. 

All in all, Ankara’s relations with the European Commission are now limited to refugee-related matters.

As for the European Parliament, relations are at their lowest ebb. The latest recommendation from the parliament – made in November 2016 and reiterated since – is to freeze negotiations with Ankara, but it has been declared null and void by the Turkish EU minister himself. The parliament’s rapporteur for Turkey is an undeclared persona non grata in Turkey, as officials refuse to meet her. The last meeting of the Joint Parliamentary Commission, set up between members of Turkish Parliament and the European Parliament, was in May 2015. Ankara has no supporting group left in the parliament.   

Regarding member states’ politicians, they now hardly have any substantial interactions with their Turkish counterparts. The single exception is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is trying to save the so-called “refugee deal” of March 2016 under which Turkish authorities act on behalf of the EU to patrol refugee movements towards the continent.

As far as the upcoming German coalition government is concerned, it is not difficult to predict that it will lead the movement to redefine the EU’s “Turkey policy” to remove the prospect of membership. The chancellor’s party programme openly called for the end of negotiations, the Bavarian CSU is adamantly against the status quo and the one potential coalition partner – the FDP – has an uncompromisingly anti-Ankara candidate for the foreign affairs post. The debate is between terminating negotiations and an empty yet inconclusive conditionality that keeps them as they are, a policy advocated by the Greens. One should add to these odds countless deep bilateral feuds between Ankara and Berlin.

In any case, when one recalls the open opposition of Austria and the Netherlands blocking any membership-related move by the council, there is not a single EU government left in favour of Turkey’s membership. As for public opinion, whose weight is obviously taken into account by politicians, Ankara’s irrational moves vis-à-vis Europe combined with fears of radical Islam have ended any remaining sympathy towards Turkey’s membership bid.

Turkey’s candidacy – older than many new EU member states – was ratified in 1963 and reiterated in 1999. No other country has gone through such a long and cumbersome membership process since the first enlargement in 1973. Now Turkey is becoming the single case in the history of enlargement of a “failed candidacy”.  

Europeans seem, at the end of the day, quite pleased with that failed candidacy. Now Turkey has become an ordinary third country within the European political orbit, like Egypt for instance, with which the bloc continues to trade and conclude ad hoc deals on issues of common concern, like the “refugee deal”. That status may soon become official.

What remains are business and strategic concerns. In 2016, Turkey was EU’s 4th-largest export destination at €78 billion, and 5th-largest source of imports at €66 billion. Many of these companies are European at both ends. Yet they take a cautious approach to any radical moves.

Strategically speaking, Europe and the West in general are adamant about keeping Turkey out of the Russian sphere of influence and inside NATO. As for the containment of the government in Ankara, in the absence of any concrete leverage there are no quick fixes. The only principle though, should be the avoidance of the appeasement of that kind of regime, unlike at Munich in 1938. 

Finally, a word on European “empathy” towards Turkish civil society and all those in Turkey who disagree with the anti-European deeds of the regime. There is no provision among the Brussels practices to channel funds to any entity without the full approval of the sole legitimate interlocutor, in this case the Government of Turkey. Given the fact that the government will certainly not allow any such channelling of funds towards independent civil society, this empathy sounds like empty rhetoric. Eurocrats need to be resourceful and properly define and design any such programmes.  

Meanwhile, in Ankara, the top ruler summarised his policy line in early October: “EU, we don’t need you!” said President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. One should duly note that his regime’s codes are structurally anti-European. The old anti-Westernism in Turkish politics now rides the waves and Europe-bashing is a commonplace. Turkish society no longer feels the benefits of the pre-accession phase, during which a candidate country thoroughly prepares for membership, in the way that it did between 2000 and 2005.

All things considered, there is an obvious “home-coming” in terms of the European political and economic criteria, as spectacularly summarised in the political push for the reinstitution of the death penalty, otherwise abolished in 2000. A deadly end which befits the post-mortem ode!