The surprise resignation of moderate Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier this month has once again cast doubt on the future of the refugee deal signed in March between Turkey and the European Union. But, whether it moves forward or not, the agreement is just one aspect of the broader Turkish-European relationship. And, in light of political developments in both Ankara and Brussels, it’s high time to rethink what that relationship should look like.
Under domestic pressure to do something about the refugee crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave in to a series of demands from Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in exchange for the refugee deal. Among these demands — in addition to six billion euros and the introduction of visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens — was the promise to open a new chapter in Turkey’s long-delayed accession process to the European Union.
The prospect of Turkish accession is still remote, so Merkel’s promise was viewed as a mostly symbolic gesture that helped sweeten the deal for Erdogan. But given Turkey’s evolution under his rule, and the country’s unpopularity in Europe, it was still a very unfortunate one. It’s time to pull the plug for good on Turkey’s EU candidacy and think seriously about alternatives.
Though Turkey first applied to join the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, in 1987, it was not until 2005 that the long, drawn-out negotiations started. Candidates for EU membership must comply with a detailed list of rules, divided into 35 chapters, that deal with issues ranging from free movement of goods to judicial independence to norms of competition. Each chapter can only be opened and closed (when the candidate meets the requirements) with the approval of all EU member states. So far, Turkey has managed to open 15 chapters and to close only one.
The rationale for Turkish accession is well known: it would more firmly bind the Muslim democracy and NATO ally to the West while boosting political and economic reforms at home. The prospective candidacy of a large country, jealous of its sovereignty, also appealed to countries like the U.K. that want to ensure the European Union remains a free trade area instead of turning into a more integrated political entity. U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also supported Turkey’s bid, furthering the notion that NATO and EU membership should go hand in hand. (A former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, spoke for many exasperated Europeans when he suggested, in response, that perhaps Mexico should join the United States.)
But domestic developments in Turkey have not fulfilled the hopes of the country’s supporters. Erdogan’s tightening hold on power and his plans for constitutional changes that would further strengthen the presidency have gone hand in hand with crackdowns on the opposition and the media. In a 2015 report, Freedom House denounced “several years of decline” of freedom of the press in Turkey.
While the accession process did spur some progress in the early 2000s, it seemed to have little effect when it didn’t suit Erdogan’s domestic agenda. His ruling party complied with EU rules when it came to weakening the army’s role in politics, but instead of allowing a newly empowered civil society to become a check on its authority, it has only consolidated its power while weakening the country’s hard-won secular tradition.
Furthermore, Turkey still refuses to recognize the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member, and occupies the northern half of the country with about 30,000 troops, more than it has ever committed to NATO operations.
Turkey’s failure to apply its customs agreement with the EU to Cyprus led the EU Council to freeze talks on key accession chapters in 2006. And despite the hurdle this issue has already placed in Turkey’s path, Erdogan has been further hardening his views in recent years.
Beyond the disturbing rise of political authoritarianism in the country, many Europeans question Turkey’s European orientation on geographic and cultural grounds. Only 3 percent of Turkey’s territory is, strictly speaking, in Europe — and its GDP per capita is less than a third of the European average. A Muslim country with 75 million citizens, bordering Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Turkey would soon become the EU’s most populated country it if joined.
Public opinion polls in Europe show that an ever-larger majority of voters oppose Turkish accession. Indeed, the issue has come to symbolize the gulf between Brussels, which is seen as trying to push accession, and actual Europeans, who are more than skeptical. In 2014, 69 percent of Germans opposed Turkey’s membership bid (up from 52 percent in 2005) while only 26 percent were in favor. The same year, 83 percent of the French were opposed. Even in the U.K., whose diplomats have long supported the Turkish bid, only 34 percent of the population did in 2014.
And here comes the dirty little secret of the negotiations: Turkish accession is unlikely to ever happen. At every stage, the next step must be approved unanimously by all EU member states, with the possibility of referendum in some countries. It is highly doubtful a consensus could be reached. (Consider that voters in the Netherlands recently rejected closer ties with Ukraine, a Christian, undoubtedly European country.)
Yet the talks with Ankara keep going, like a bureaucratic zombie, because the various European participants expect someone else — probably the French or Germans — to cast the final veto and take the blame. In the midst of a refugee crisis, some might be tempted to argue for keeping up the charade, if only to secure greater cooperation. But this does more harm than good. The process is the worst of two worlds: it’s going nowhere, but can still be used as a scarecrow by anti-European populists. Though unrelated to the subject at hand, the prospect of Turkey’s accession was brandished by fear-mongering opponents of the failed EU constitution during the French and Dutch referendum campaigns in 2005. Brexit partisans are trying to do the same today. The situation is understandably a source of resentment for many Turks, whose once-strong support for EU accession has waned.
In addition, the conditionality of the EU accession process — long seen by the Europeans as a means of leverage — is becoming more of a burden than an asset in the case of Turkey. Feeling that he has the upper hand, Erdogan is not inclined to make concessions on his authoritarian ways, forcing the EU to either overturn its principles to get a refugee deal, or to look for another solution. As a disillusioned EU diplomat recently told me: “We used to see accession talks as a strength, now it’s a constraint on us.”
Divorces are always messy, but there is no clear path to Turkish accession to the European Union. Kicking the can down the road will only poison relations further and encourage voices of discord in both Europe and Turkey.
This doesn’t mean European leaders should seek confrontation with Turkey. The EU is Turkey’s number one trade partner, with nearly half of Turkish exports going to Europe. Furthermore, from energy diversification to the fight against terrorism and instability in the Middle East, Turkey’s strategic importance to Europe’s southern flank is considerable — there’s a reason it’s a NATO ally. But a military alliance is not the same thing as political union. Besides, from its dithering on stopping jihadi fighters from crossing into Syria to its exploitation of the refugee issue to blackmail Europe into concessions, Ankara has not proven to be a consistent partner. As an EU member in full standing, Turkey would get a veto on Europe’s collective foreign policy decisions — an unacceptable outcome.
At heart, the Turkish case speaks to Europe’s inability to see its neighborhood though any lens other than “enlargement.” There is legitimate reason for that. Despite the current trend of Euro-gloom and democratic backsliding in countries like Hungary and Poland, it is undeniable that EU enlargement has been an extraordinary force for stability and democracy on the European continent. The long and excruciating integration process, with its extensive demands on rule of law and free market norms, has greatly contributed to cementing the transitions of Central and Eastern countries after the fall of the Berlin wall.
But enlargement prospects can’t be used as a foreign policy tool forever. European leaders should start contemplating alternatives to accession for Turkey such as making the country a “strategic partner,” an option long favored by Angela Merkel herself: this could spur progress in a number of areas without promising, or demanding, the impossible. It’s time for the EU to recognize its stable borders and develop an ability to defend them, reinforcing the notion that the continent can act as a political power rather than an ever-expanding international organization.