EU-Turkey relations: an incessant tumultuous terrain

One of the original achievements of European integration was to create a Union of states characterized by the absence of conflicts both between the member states and with third-party states, which have shaped European history for many decades. Ever since its rise the Ottoman Empire has been one of these third-party actors. This makes it clear that the only way to achieve stability both within the Union itself and on the old continent is through a continuous and unsharp dialogue with Turkey with the aim of establishing stable, balanced, and virtuous relations (Josep Borrell, 2020).     

  Relations between the European Union and Turkey date back more than 60 years to those years when the Treaty of Rome was signed. However, relationships between the European Union and Turkey have been tumultuous and erratic in multiple occasions throughout the decades thereby making interaction and cooperation between the two actors a rather delicate topic. The irregularity and instability of the development of the relationship between them made the process of the Turkish membership in the EU increasingly complex. Indeed, Turkey has been waiting for its accession to the EU for 30 years now and the most it can claim to have obtained is a preferential relationship with the EU embodied in the Ankara Association Agreement of 1963, which expanded their economic and trade relations, which has been reinforced in 1973 by an additional Protocol aimed at gradually establishing a customs union between Turkey and the former EEC. The Customs Union which entered into force in 1995 represented the EU’s first significant step towards the simplification of economic and trade relations with a non-EU country. Both acts constitute the legal basis for the EU membership process. However, numerous disagreements resulted in a rapidly mutual fading trust leading the Council in 2018 to assert that the accession negotiations with Ankara are “effectively frozen” thereby leading to a de facto relinquishment of the perhaps too ambitious project of opening up to a Turkish EU membership to which it had applied in 1987 (Turhan et al., 2013).

  Until the present day, the EU and Turkey, relationship has proven to be quite robust due to specific reasons. Both parties seemed conscious of the fact that the terms of their relationship foresee strict boundaries, i.e., limits that should not be overstepped. Moreover, dialogue has been kept alive as both actors are characterised by a number of joint interests that are robust enough to get the upper hand on the numerous episodes of tensions that have occurred up until now (Lecha, 2019). Nevertheless, trying to uphold relations and develop further cooperation just on those grounds will most likely not represent a durable solution. Turkey will be a persistent presence in the Union’s affairs and represent one of the main subjects member states will have to face in the upcoming years. The developments of Turkey’s political, economic and security dynamics will raise pressure on EU leaders who will be required to act rapidly and make decisions. However, this will be easier said than done, as EU-Turkey relations are a minefield. In order not to suffer from unwanted and mutually damaging consequences and given that until now neither of the two actors has seemed to be keen on interrupting dialogue and cooperation, such landmines should be identified and defused (Lecha, 2019). Indeed, to acknowledge why relationship with Turkey have relapsed throughout the years and to understand on which issue the future dialogue should be concentrated, it is of utter importance analysing key problematics that are emblematic of the degeneration of the EU-Tukey dialogue. 

Landmines of the EU-Turkey relations

  Since it’s accession to power in 2002, Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) won elections one after the other. Over the years, the ruling party has repeatedly attacked und undermined democratic pluralism and civil liberties, thereby strengthening its stance against political opposition and dissident voices such as journalists, civil society activists, members of the political opposition (Scazzieri, 2021). These attacks raised concerns in the EU, leading to the cut of the 3,5 billion € pre-accession funds as well as to highly critical political declarations like the one of the Council of the European Union stating that “Turkey has been moving away from the EU” (Council of the European Union, 2018, p.13). The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (2020), firmly asserted that “[…] Turkey has become a regional power to be reckoned with and has scored undeniable successes. Unfortunately, in quite a few cases, Turkey’s international agenda is not well aligned with the EU’s and its methods are not those of the EU”.

  A second landmine is Turkey’s territorial disputes and turbulent neighbourhood relations with Greece and Cyprus which constitute a major difficulty. The two member states repeatedly expressed that the accession of Turkey to the EU was not in their interests. In the case of Greece, the main tension points reside in the Aegean dispute encompassing the extension of maritime and air spaces, the sovereignty of the Aegean Sea and several inhabited islets, as well as the future delimitation of the continental shelf zone (Acer, 2006). Likewise, the Turkish military presence and its non-recognition of the Republic of Cyprus represents a highly contentious issue in the EU-Turkey relationship. Furthermore, the drilling of natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean worsened the neighbourhood relationships, leading the EU downgrading its relations with Turkey (Council of the European Union, 2019).

  Moreover, the Kurdish issue and its link with the war in Syria hides several tension points between the EU and Turkey. In fact, this issue interlinks the domestic treatment of the Kurdish minority (persecuted for demanding more political and cultural autonomy) with the conflicting regional interests in Northern Syria between EU member states backing Kurdish militias in their fight against ISIS and Turkey who perceives Kurdish militias as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) perceived as terrorists (Lecha, 2019). Turkey’s prominent role in Northern-Syria led to tensions with its NATO allies, especially with France and the US. On one hand, the country feels a general lack of support from the western alliance, especially as the 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan involved Turkish officials previously posted in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On the other hand, Turkey’s determination to purchase Russian made S-400 air missile defence system as well as its recent cooperation with Moscow in Syria (Dalay, 2021) might not only irritate NATO members and Washington, but it could also decrease the crucial support of its Eastern European allies who are key in promoting the country’s accession to the EU.

  Technical elements of the cooperation between the EU and Turkey such as customs union, visas, refugees suffered from their politization and created further barriers for an improvement of the European-Turkish dialogue. For instance, the upgrading of the custom unions which is mutually beneficial for the two economies, has been halted by the General Affairs council due to the anti-democratic path followed by Erdoğan as an answer to the 2016 coup-attempt (Stanieck, 2020). Similarly, the visa-liberalisation faces reluctancy from both sides for two reasons. Firstly, Turkey does not comply with some several EU requirements with one example being its anti-terrorism legislation; secondly, numerous EU member states are witnessing the rise of far-right ideologies, which leads them to object the visa-liberalisation regardless of Turkey fulfilling EU requirements. Finally, the review of the terms of the recently expired agreement on migration via Turkey to Europe might spark further tensions. Indeed, the mutually beneficial pact was agreed upon five-years earlier in 2015 and since then bi-lateral relations have worsened. In order to raise the stakes, Turkish authorities encouraged migrants to reach Europe, thereby increasing the potential for political conflict between the two partners (Albanese, 2021).

Possible scenarios and future actions

  Against this tumultuous background, clarity should be made on the possible scenarios along which future relations between the EU and Turkey might develop. Increasingly consonant stances and converging narratives between the EU and Turkey would rise the likelihood of a cooperation scenario implying that the two actors would join forces in some respects but at the same time remain independent from membership negotiations. Should this cooperation scenario be chosen, the aim would be of developing it into convergence or accession. If, instead, the narratives among Turkish actors do not relate with the narratives of EU actors a conflict scenario will mature. In this case, not only would the EU and Turkey compete with one another, but they would also actively undermine each other’s interests (Hauge et al., 2016). For the upcoming years, converging dynamics will be off the table mainly because of political reasons. Accession negotiations will most probably not be re-engaged in the near future as the consequences of the 2016 attempted coup d’état led Turkey not to be any longer aligned with the Copenhagen democracy criteria. Yet, as Kuneralp (2017, p.7) addresses, “[…] acting on such a conclusion would not be meaningful because it would have no impact other than pushing Turkey even further away from the EU, surely not a development in the interest of the Union”. Future decisions taken by both actors will be decisive in choosing whether cooperation or conflict prevails. However, given that at the moment EU-Turkey relations are at their lowest point, the prolongation of a fragile and uneasy dialogue – where cooperation alternates with occurrences of tensions without, however, deteriorating to situations of conflict – appears to be the most likely scenario.  

  Hence, in a setting where both actors do not intend to turn their backs one each other but where a smooth dialogue is hard to achieve, the EU should advance in this relationship-minefield as smart and cautiously as possible. As Lecha asserts (2019), not taking decisions, that is, adopting a passive attitude would be the easiest way to go in order not to have the burden of the responsibility of a decision that may be the best option in the short-term but creates difficulties in the long-term. When important decisions are surfacing, EU leaders may attempt to circumvent or delay them. Exemplary of this is the decision of the suspension of the negotiation process where the choice of interruption would only exacerbate the already fragile relations. This passive behaviour has been the most predominant one in the EU and will most probably not vary in the years ahead. However, this leads Turkey to react by testing the EU’s limits thereby rising the pressure on the latter to act. Alternatively, the EU could take a more realistic stance by recognising that Turkey is an unusual candidate and that it will never perfectly align with EU values and principles. As the author writes (2019, p.17), this would mean “ending the hypocrisy” or “putting an end to the fiction”. This would lead the EU not to opt for a direct halt of the accession negotiations, but to proceed with its dialogue with Turkey as if it did not exist. Thus, the infringement of the Copenhagen Criteria by the Turkish government would just be used as a bargaining tool when needed. This would lead to the replacement of a normative cooperation with a transactional cooperation, where new deals would be drained from any politically sensitive fundamental. Adopting this modus operandi, however, would lead the EU to lose credibility among those segments of Turkish society that have been advocating for intensified relations with the EU. Moreover, the latter would be setting a precedent for other candidate countries, its neighbours and other global partners. Another option would be to continue hoping in a better development of EU-Turkey relations as “[…] disengagement means abandoning those segments of society that suffer the consequences of democratic backsliding, which would give Erdoğan an even freer hand” (Lecha, 2019, p.18). Giving up would mean nullifying past efforts. If Turkey perseverates in testing EU limits, the latter has the option to impose a change of behaviour in Turkey by developing striking and punitive actions, such as deciding to terminate the negotiation process or even impose sanctions. However, the EU should be aware of the consequences that such an answer might lead to, including the possibility of a conflict as well as Erdoğan taking advantage of this punitive procedure. Indeed, he could indicate the EU as the main reason for the economic hardship Turkey is going through, thereby reiterating that the EU’s punishing attitude was aimed at weakening Turkey (Lecha, 2019).

  Turkey’s accession to the EU has been one of the main challenges which the Union had to face up until now. It has led to intense discussions not just within high places in the EU and in the political and academic sectors of society, but also within the European public at large. Advocates of a Turkish membership claim that it would lead to major economic and geopolitical benefits, while others worry that it would distort the nature and the rationale of the EU as well as the reason why the European project has been created in the first place. One thing is sure, namely that EU–Turkey relations are tense like never before and will most likely not recover any time soon. Therefore, it is of crucial importance that both actors try to collaborate to avoid relations from deteriorating in order to avoid irreparable consequences. EU decisionmakers should keep in mind that Turkey goes beyond Erdoğan, and that a conflict would not only be costly for both Turkey and the EU but would also destabilize the international stability. Thus, the Union should leave its door open for Turkey given that ending membership negotiations would not be a solution to current tensions but would instead drive Turkey further away from the EU and the West leading to harsher confrontations and, hence, to irreversible consequences. Trying to procrastinate by stretching out accession negotiations at least until the next Turkish elections in 2023 – when there may be a change of government – would be a wise and less risky option for both actors. Against this background, Turkey’s accession to the EU is not any longer a question of “when” but instead a question of “if”. 

Source: the European Institute for International Law and International Relations

september 2021

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