Turkey-UK and Turkey-EU relations after Brexit

Brexit will have several consequences for the Turkey-EU and Turkey-UK relations. 

Britain’s joining the predecessor of the European Union, the European Economic Community (EEC), was as big an event as Brexit. It applied twice to join the EEC and was vetoed twice by France before it acceded to the bloc on Jan. 1, 1973. 

The Labour Party was not happy with the deal and in 1975 called a referendum to see whether the British public approved it - 67 percent of the electorate voted in favour of remaining in the community. 

EU Council President Donald Tusk said British Prime Minister David Cameron had told him before Britain’s 2015 general election that he did not believe a Brexit referendum would ever be held. Cameron said his proposal to hold a public vote was aimed at appeasing the Eurosceptics in his party and he believed he would again form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who would block a referendum being held.

Cameron’s daring initiative is a textbook example of the political consequences of a miscalculated bet. But irrespective of whether Brexit is good for the Britain or not, it is a fact that the British people do not like decisions concerning their lives being taken by bureaucrats in Brussels. The Brexit vote confirmed it.  

An important effect of Brexit is that it proved EU membership is not a marriage that cannot be dissolved. This was one of the worries that preoccupied Turkish leaders on the eve of Turkey’s application to become a member of the EEC. In 1963, Turkey’s then prime minister, Ismet Inönü, signed Turkey’s application to join only after he had received assurances from advisors that the country could leave if necessary. 

One direct effect of Brexit on Turkey–UK relations will be that Britain will be able to make mutually beneficial deals with Turkey without being bound by the EU rules. Furthermore, post-Brexit UK-EU relations may become an example, despite much dissimilarity, for future Turkey-EU relations.

Britain’s ambassador in Ankara met Turkish media to comment on the post-Brexit era. Among the advantages that he mentioned was Britain’s new immigration criteria. He said Britain’s former EU partners would be put in the same basket as non-EU countries as far as immigration eligibility criteria are concerned. Therefore, Turks will compete on an equal footing with the citizens of EU member countries. It remains to be seen whether this will become an advantage for Turks. 

Turkey and Britain will become two non-EU countries that both have a Customs’ Union with the bloc. Turkey’s Customs’ Union with the EU has an important deficiency - it causes trade diversion between countries with which Turkey does not have Free Trade Area Agreement, but which have one with the EU. If Britain is able to negotiate a solution to this issue, Turkey may use that example to correct the injustice it faces. 

In the new EU Enlargement Strategy being developed, there are new criteria for membership. The draft divides the 33 existing negotiation chapters into six groups. The first group titled “Fundamentals” prioritises justice, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms. These chapters will be the ones to be opened first and closed last. Therefore, when there is regression in one of the chapters the accession process will slow down.

The new enlargement strategy gives the EU more tools to control the accession process, by punishing poor performance by countries seeking to join the union, and rewarding those that perform well.

Despite Britain’s vote for Brexit, joining the EU continues to be an attractive target for several countries. Countries in the Balkans are at the top of the list, because the EU has included them as potential members. The first in line is Montenegro. With its relatively small population of 630 000, the EU will have little difficulty absorbing it.

Montenegro and Serbia have already started accession negotiations with the EU, but it is unclear whether the new strategy will be retroactively applied to them. But if there is a dispute on the subject, the EU has several tools to make its own will prevail.  

The new EU Enlargement Strategy is likely to make Turkey’s accession process even more difficult, if indeed it ever it starts again.

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