Free Associating

Looking for Options on the EU-Turkey Relationship

Whiteboard meeting: In Ankara, Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope analyses results. PHOTO: Pekka Shemeikka

By Hugh Pope (@Hugh_Pope)

Gathering round an embassy table in Ankara this month, a dozen European diplomats and Turkish academics met to brainstorm about their countries’ increasingly dysfunctional relationship. Turkey seems stuck in a perpetual European waiting room, theoretically there to negotiate entry into the EU. But both sides are becoming impatient and flirting with the idea of either bolting the door – in the case of Europe – or storming off, in the case of Turkey.

The debate leap-frogged over the usual running commentary over which negotiating chapter has or (mostly) hasn’t opened, how to shift the immovable object of the Cyprus problem (see our reporting on Cyprus), or whether Europe’s or Turkey’s leaders actually want Turkish accession to happen at all. Instead, the group tried to work out what both sides really wanted, and how they could get it.

Interestingly, for a country often seen by Europeans as overly emotional, Turkey was thought by this group to seek mostly common sense advantages for its 76 million people. These included hassle-free access to EU visas, markets and technology; influence over EU decision-making, especially about trade, and a continuation of the investment that surged after accession talks started in 2005 (three quarters of which comes from EU countries). Nearly as important, however, was the ambition to be treated as a respected equal, to keep full control over sovereignty and domestic and internal policies, and to be able to project Turkish influence into its neighbourhood and the world at large.

More surprisingly, the gathering thought that what Europe wanted from Turkey was not just the basic hard-power matters of market access, energy security and safe borders. Much more prominent were softer issues like being a foreign-policy partner, a multiplier of European values in the Middle East and a reliable ally in NATO; removal of the Cyprus block from EU-NATO cooperation; and more democratic rights, rule of law and stability in Turkey. Participants grappled with how to articulate a baseline European hope that Turkey would adopt a culture of compromise, Enlightenment values and the promotion of a moderate Islam (eventually defined as a continuation of Turkey’s current relatively secular system of government).

The group then scored how well both sides’ wishes would be fulfilled in the four most likely future scenarios. The first is a continuation of the current state of affairs: a stalled, prickly negotiating process that limps along thanks to work-arounds created by diplomatic well-wishers. The second is a firm, consensual move to a new special relationship, perhaps an associate membership in a multi-speed Europe as suggested for Turkey and the UK by Member of the European Parliament Andrew Duff). The third is a suspension of the negotiations, which, since unanimity would likely be required to restart them, would probably end any hope of Turkish membership. The fourth is credible work on making Turkey a full member of the EU, a goal long advocated by Crisis Group for the many benefits of the process, despite uncertainty whether this outcome would really be achieved. (See for instance Crisis Group Europe Report N°184, Turkey and Europe: The Way Ahead, 17 August 2007.)

As the tallies were counted, seasoned diplomats and experts gathered closer to the whiteboards at the end of the long dining table. Unexpected results were emerging before their eyes.

The first surprise was at how much the group thought the current stalemate was against the broadest interests of both Turkey and Europe. Analysing this finding, many noted that the harmful status quo likely serves the political interests of Turkey-sceptic European politicians and the current Turkish political ruling class. The Turkish elite appears to appreciate the regional status that goes with Turkey being accepted as a potential EU member but, perhaps fearing limits on its power, has since 2011 done less and less on the vital EU accession work on transparency of government and procurement, independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression. (See our blog post Turkey’s Tentative EU Springtime.)

Another discovery was that Turkey was not the great demandeur in the relationship, needy for Europe and wanting full accession. The Turks, it turned out, were thought able to satisfy their basic needs just as well through full accession or an associate membership on the outer rim of Europe.

The biggest surprise for the European diplomats, however, was the crystal-clear revelation on the whiteboards that it was above all the EU whose goals and interests would be best served by an accelerated process of full Turkish membership. This outcome was judged to be far better for Europe than the status quo, suspension or some kind of special associate membership.

Of course, this exercise was an unscientific, ad hoc snapshot. But it is also the conclusion drawn by the Eurocrats of the European Commission, who are likely the most solid bulwark of Turkey’s accession process. The same long-term perspective is channeled in a compelling new report by the Independent Commission on Turkey (“The Imperative for Change”). The ICT’s Albert Rohan, former head of Austria’s foreign ministry, said at the report’s launch in Istanbul in April that “Twitter, websites, governments come and go. [But] Turkey is where it is. Europe is where it is. [France and Germany] are no longer negative. Now is the time to re-dynamise the process”. ICT rapporteur Nathalie Tocci pointed out that there was no plausible “associate membership” available for Turkey, and that a light version of EU enlargement  “simply doesn’t work”. The ICT’s Emma Bonino, a Crisis Group board member and former Italian foreign minister, recognised that it was hopeless to expect a Turkey strategy from European politicians because campaigning on EU foreign policy “doesn’t bring a single vote”. But she hoped that now that Turkey’s regional policy “has fallen apart … it will realise it has to be part of something”.

Back in Ankara, few thought there was much danger of a train wreck ending Turkey’s EU ambition. This is partly because Brussels itself doesn’t want its bluff called on enlargement, long its most potent policy tool. But the possibility of an accident remains. Prime Minister Erdoğan is increasingly unpredictable. He might one day walk out of the EU process as he once walked off the stage at Davos in 2009 when he lost his temper with Israel – the moment that Turkey’s then-promising “zero problems with neighbours” foreign policy began to unravel. A Turkish professor said both the Turkish elite and public had also become far less supportive of accession, since they now felt it was clear that Europe would never allow them in.

The possibility of a walk-out is not just on the Turkish side. A former European political insider, who has done more than most to bring the two sides together, felt it was hard to see why Europe does not suspend the current process because of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s backtracking on reforms and encouragement of hate speech. And a senior Eurocrat warned that “suspension [of the accession process] is not excluded by member states. It could get out of control”.

Already, populist politics on both sides has exposed the old game, in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept Turkey. No longer can the two sides use the ambiguity of an open-ended process as leverage for beneficial reforms. At best, a consensus round my end of the table thought the EU and Turkey should limp on a little longer, making sure that Turkey is included in planned negotiations in the coming years over a series of EU treaty changes to its basic structure. That way, a more natural place might open up for Turkey as an associate member or strategic partner in a looser EU.

For now, however, the two sides seem to be sleepwalking toward a moment of reckoning. At worst, as one north European ambassador put it, “we [in Europe] already have little relevance [to Turkey]. Suspension would be like pulling the plug, leaving us with nothing”.

The whiteboards showed that neither Turkey nor Europe wanted or needed a break-up. But if they want to achieve the closer relationship that does serve their best long-term interests – whatever form the relationship may take – European and Turkish politicians will have to stop driving the two sides apart.

Author: Hugh Pope

Hugh Pope is the Deputy Program Director for Europe and Central Asia. Pope conducts research in Turkey and Cyprus, writing policy-focused reports on Turkish policy, Turkey’s immediate region and the factors that mitigate or increase the risk of armed conflict.

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