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FEUTURE Voice No. 5, July 2018

After the Elections: Ten Takeaways on Turkey's European Future 

by Eduard Soler i Lecha, Senior Research Fellow at CIDOB and leader of the Work Package on political drivers of the FEUTURE project*

A little reluctantly, most European leaders called or sent messages to congratulate Erdoğan on his victory in the June 24th elections. A few days later, the EU's General Affairs Council stated that Turkey was moving further away from the European Union and that the conditions were not in place to advance the accession negotiations or the modernisation of the Customs Union. They did, though, commit to continue working on subjects such as migration, energy and security. Turkey's reaction was as expected: Europe’s attitude was called hypocritical, inconsistent and unfair. Are we moving towards a train wreck or a scenario in which the need to cooperate mitigates the tension? To answer this question, these ten elements must be borne in mind:

1. The worst-case scenario has been avoided. Nobody dared to express it openly but of all the possible post-electoral scenarios one in particular was a nightmare, not only for Turkey but also for its partners and allies: the loser of the elections taking to the streets to challenge the results. Given the country's polarisation, serious incidents would have resulted. The European Union would have been forced to take a stance, placing at risk either its credibility or the continuity of its cooperation with the Turkish authorities. 

2. Erdoğan matters even more. After these elections the constitutional reform enshrining a presidentialist system comes into force. Decision-making will be even more hierarchical and in the hands of a smaller group of people. Until now, when relations with Erdoğan went through rough patches, European leaders and institutions could resort to alternative channels, mainly through the prime minister. This is no longer the case.  In the new system this figure disappears, leaving no option other than to talk with the president. The Erdoğan factor has always been an important element in relations with Turkey but it will be even more so from now on.  

3. Crises will arise but there will also be a willingness to keep them under control. The history of relations between Turkey and the European Union is dotted with crises, and Erdoğan’s 16 years in power are no exception. Mutual accusations and reproaches are habitual and often made to obtain political gains. Hence, in both Turkey and the EU countries, they have been more frequent when elections approach. To date, ways to lower the tension and redirect the situation have always been found and this will not change. New crises will undoubtedly break out and old wounds may open, but before placing cooperation at risk on matters of security or economic interest, both sides will explore the ways to lower the tension. 

4. Relations will be emotionally charged. In Turkey – and this extends beyond Erdoğan and his voters – a strong feeling of grievance and discrimination has taken root when people look towards Europe. They feel they are treated as a second-class country and accuse the European Union of not fulfilling its promises. The supporters of opposition forces also accuse the EU of not doing enough and many feel abandoned. In the European Union the emotion is less strong but some of Erdoğan's gestures and speeches have touched nerves. The most notable was the accusation that the Dutch as well as German authorities were “Nazi remnants”. There is distrust and resentment on both sides. Gestures, symbols and emotions will continue to be irritants in the coming years.  

5. Nationalism has growing influence in Turkey. The main surprise in these elections was the success of the MHP, a far-right Turkish nationalist party. In the parliamentary elections the MHP stood in coalition with the AKP, and their MPs hold the key to the parliamentary majority. The MHP will certainly attempt to influence Turkish politics from a nationalist perspective. The priority will be all topics connected to the Kurdish issue but they may also display a belligerent attitude on sensitive issues, particularly vis-à-vis Turkey’s neighbours, including Greece and Cyprus. What remains to be seen is whether they are able to influence debates on foreign policy issues and, even more so, the decisions taken by the government. 

6. The economy will be even more important. The Turkish economy is emitting ambivalent signals. On the one hand, with growth figures of over 7%, it shows great dynamism. But on the other, the exchange rate collapsed and doubts are growing about the sustainability of a model that has to resort to the international market for credit due to its low domestic savings level. The global context increases its vulnerability: oil prices, US sanctions on Iran, the end of monetary expansion and generalised doubts about emerging economies. In fact, the fear of an economic crisis breaking out was one of the factors that led Erdoğan to call early elections. One aspect these elections won’t alter is the fact that the European Union will remain Turkey's main economic partner as well as its main investor. Thus, Turkey will realise that it cannot afford to cause a major crisis with the EU, one that could jeopardise trade and investment links, particularly at a time of increased economic vulnerability. All in all, the economy may end up absorbing the shocks that start in the political arena. 

7. Refugees will stay on the agenda. Many Europeans, including heads of state and government, associate Turkey with the migration agenda. It is quite telling that the representative of the EU institutions at Erdoğan’s inauguration ceremony was Dimitris Avramopoulos, the commissioner in charge of migration. Any decision related to Turkey will be taken with consideration given to whether it compromises collaboration on this issue or not. That is the point of continuity. What could change is that, aware that the EU is feeling vulnerable again, Erdoğan may increase his demands. We will also have to pay attention to whether he and his parliamentary partners fulfil their electoral promises to return some of the Syrian refugees that have until now found shelter in Turkey. While Syrians will remain the main focus of attention, the situation of Afghan refugees and the way Turkey deals with them will also become more visible. If the return of refugees – Syrians, Afghans or others –is made involuntarily and to conflict areas, the EU will have to decide whether to openly criticise such actions and deal with possible reprisals as well as listening to Ankara retorting that in this area the EU is in no position to give lessons. 

8. The elections remind us that Turkey is more than Erdoğan. 52% of voters – or in absolute figures over 26 million people – is a lot. But what about the other 48%? When the EU sets out its policies towards Turkey it must think about the whole country, including that other half. How? Instead of giving up on Turkey, programmes and measures that, for example, allow student exchange or the strengthening of civil society should be maintained or even ramped up, as should issues such as visa facilitation, which can send positive messages to the whole country. The European Union must be able to criticise any decision that, from its point of view, goes against shared values and norms and must invite the Turkish government to do the same.  And, above all, it must avoid making a whole country pay for disagreements with the people who govern it or about the way they govern it. 

9. Being aware of the cost of divorce might be healthy. The cumulative frustrations on both sides increase the temptation to bang a fist on the table. Erdoğan once suggested the possibility of calling a referendum so that Turkish citizens would be the ones to finalise the accession negotiations. A year ago, the European Parliament asked for the negotiations to be frozen. Austria went further and called for a complete suspension, saying that it was all a diplomatic fiction. Nevertheless, we know very little about the costs of a divorce, amicable or otherwise, or which parts of the bill would be paid by each party. Putting the cost of not collaborating on the table could be a way to help more conciliatory attitudes flourish.

10. There is life beyond accession. Not everyone dares say it, but there is broad consensus that Turkey's integration into the European Union is off the agenda, at least in the short and medium term. Not only because Turkey does not meet the requirements, but also because the European Union is unprepared (and unwilling) to open its doors. The challenge is to find a way to handle relations while containing mutual frustration. In 2012 the European Commission proposed the concept of the “positive agenda”. It sought to put the conflictive issues to one side in order to advance where interests and desire to cooperate are shared. This idea remains valid but with three nuances: any offer made to Turkey should not be formulated as a consolation prize; the temptation to fall into a purely transactional rationale must be avoided; and the messages from Brussels and the member states interested in maintaining bilateral cooperation should be as consistent as possible. 

In a controversial interview Macron said that his job as president was not as cool as some thought and gave the example of having to speak with Erdoğan every ten days. Over the coming years, European leaders will continually have to pick up the phone to speak with Erdoğan. They will reach out to him to handle the latest crisis or to preserve some crucial area of cooperation. Relations between Turkey and the European Union will continue to oscillate between conflict – more or less theatrical – and cooperation. There will be more frustration and more episodes of tension, but the costs of a full-blown confrontation will remain unaffordable.

 *A first version of this article was published in El Confidencial, 3rd July 2018.


FEUTURE Voice No. 4, January 2018

Beyond the storm in EU-Turkey relations

by Nathalie Tocci, IAI, Scienfic Coordinator*

When Turkey is discussed in the European Union, and vice versa, all talk is about conflict, divergence and mutual recrimination nowadays. Political tones on both sides are acrimonious, high-level contact is circumscribed, and public opposition to Turkey’s EU membership stands at a staggering 77 percent in the Union. Turks too, who in the mid-2000s backed EU membership by 74 percent, today reject the proposition by a slim majority. Taken together even a staunch supporter of Turkey’s European future like myself now has second thoughts.

Indeed it is difficult to imagine current dynamics culminating in Turkey’s EU membership as we now know it. Turkey no longer can be reasonably described as fulfilling the Copenhagen political criteria advocating democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. On its side, Turkey understandably distrusts the EU for its lack of credibility, double standards and constantly moving goalposts particularly since the 2004 enlargement. Add to this the fact that the Cyprus peace process, premised on the goal of achieving a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation, has reached a dead end. If the last round of talks, which featured an unprecedented alignment of the political stars, failed, maybe the parties, notably the Republic of Cyprus, should plainly admit it is not interested in this kind of deal. Dulcis in fundo, is the sharp deterioration in bilateral German-Turkish ties, featuring obscene accusations from Ankara to its European partners best left unspoken. Sum this up and even the most ardent believer of Turkey’s European future struggles to keep the faith alive.

Yet as the Feuture project has revealed (, when the relationship between the EU and Turkey is gauged in its entirety, a far more complex picture emerges. True, at the political level the relationship stands at a historic low. Never has Turkey’s European aspiration been so vacuous and the EU’s distancing so acute. But when other dimensions of the relationship are factored in, the picture changes significantly. Political sparring notwithstanding, there has been an unstoppable convergence in trade, financial and knowledge flows. Beneath the political surface, structural economic and human indicators point towards an inexorable coming together between the EU and Turkey. Add to this, the deepening cooperation in areas such as migration, energy, foreign policy and counter-terrorism. On many of these issues, the EU and Turkey do not always see eye to eye: their cooperation is not premised on convergence, but rather on the respective awareness of mutual needs. All this suggests that the EU-Turkey relationship is actually so close and so important that it is unlikely to fall below a political threshold of no return.

How to make sense of this apparent contradiction? A mono-dimensional lens tricks us into believing that the EU-Turkey relationship will land eventually into a single organising logic – be it of conflict or of conflict. But if we wear multidimensional spectacles instead, it becomes clear that over centuries, not just years, the Europe-Turkey relationship has been marked by an ever-changing balance between conflict and convergence. Oscillation and coexistence between conflict and convergence captures the very essence of the (un)steady state of Turkey’s place in Europe.

At first glance this is of little use to political leaders who must work towards a definitive institutional relationship between the EU and Turkey. It is an observation that does not immediately answer the burning questions of whether the EU should suspend accession negotiations, upgrade its customs union, or limit itself to cooperating with Turkey transactionally on issues such as counter-terrorism, energy or migration.

But upon deeper reflection perhaps it is of some guidance. If an institutional relationship between the EU and Turkey is to capture the perennial oscillation between conflictual and convergent dynamics, then it ought to have two features. On the one hand, the institutional framework for the EU-Turkey relationship of the future should be tight enough to embed and deepen convergent trends and dynamics, most notably in the economic sphere. At the same time it should provide an overall rules-based framework to anchor Turkey’s democrats and reformists, today a harassed minority but in future hopefully not. On the other hand, the future relationship should be loose enough to allow functional cooperation on areas where interests overlap while not necessarily converging or coinciding, such as migration, energy and security. Such “looseness” should also be such as to allow but containing the oscillations, and at times the conflicts, that are bound to persist in the political relationship moving forward. 

What could such a relationship look like? Full membership as we know it today does not fit the bill. If moments of divergence are endemic in the contested EU-Turkey relationship, then Turkey’s membership in a deepened Eurozone, a common migration and asylum policy, and a burgeoning security and defence union as outlined by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, may become a straightjacket. Yet, it would be detrimental if the relationship became purely transactional, featuring cooperation where interests overlap without any rules-based anchoring or institutional safety net preventing political dissonance from slipping into outright conflict.

Charting the middle way, an upgraded customs union would provide political anchoring and ensure a rules-based framework that would deeply transform Turkey’s political economy in key sectors such as services, procurement, state aid and trade dispute settlement. It is unlikely that Turkey’s current political class would be willing to embark upon such a deep transformation of Turkey’s political economy. But if so, it is up to the EU to call the bluff. An upgraded customs union would also provide the launching pad for Turkey’s progressive integration into the various facets of the single market and its future developments in key sectors such as energy, climate, digital, infrastructure or space. Viewed from this angle, given that approximately 30 of the 35 chapters in Turkey’s accession negotiations pertain directly or indirectly to the single market, formally suspending such talks would make little long-term sense. At the same time, keeping the process alive would not imply Turkey’s eventual membership in the Union’s federalising core in areas such as fiscal and monetary policy, migration and asylum, and security and defence. It would therefore allow for cooperation on these areas without unrealistically assuming Turkey’s inexorable political convergence with the EU.

All this would be far-fetched were it not for the fact that the EU, regardless of Turkey, will likely move towards a differentiated future. Differentiated integration has always been a European reality, be it through the Eurozone, Schengen or the upcoming Permanent Structured Cooperation on defence. Only recently though has it become a political vision for the relaunch of the European project, most explicitly espoused by French President Emmanuel Macron. If differentiation will mark the Union of tomorrow and if within it Turkey’s contested relationship with Europe could find its institutional home, not exploring, or worst still closing off today the pathway to get there would be dangerously unwise.

*This article was initially published on and, January 2018

FEUTURE Voice No. 3, January 2018

PESCO and Third Countries: Breaking the Deadlock in European Security

by Senem Aydın-Düzgit, Sabanci University

On December 11, 2017, 25 member states of the European Union (EU) formally launched the permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) in the area of defense. Although the legal provisions behind PESCO have been in place since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, they have not translated into any concrete initiative until recently. A multitude of factors from the British decision to exit the EU and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to the growing rift in foreign policy and security issues between the EU and the Trump administration, including doubts over the commitment of the latter towards the transatlantic alliance, have played a key role in the EU’s decision to move toward a more integrated security and defense policy. 

PESCO makes it possible for the participating member states to develop joint military capabilities through a modular, project-based approach and deploy each state’s troops in joint operations. The agreement was signed with the expectation that member states will regularly increase their defense budgets. While PESCO can be considered an important step in the longer history of European defense integration, it is still too early to predict how PESCO will affect wider strategic convergence among EU member states. This will undoubtedly hinge on a variety of factors, the most notable of which is the willingness on the part of the member states to participate in PESCO and take part in the deployment of ambitious defense projects. 

In accordance with Article 42 (6) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), PESCO is established by “those member states whose military capabilities fulfill higher criteria and which have made more binding commitments to one another in this area with a view to the most demanding missions.” Thus, in terms of institutional design, PESCO constitutes an exemplary case of differentiated integration where only member states that are willing and able can join. PESCO includes all member states except Denmark, Malta, and the UK. In this sense, it is similar to the Eurozone and the Schengen regime in which not all member states are involved. Yet, as with all institutional designs of differentiated integration, the onset of PESCO begs the question of how this initiative will relate to third countries that are not full members of the EU. The question becomes all the more relevant in the context of PESCO given the complexity of the security threats that Europe is facing which often defy the internal-external distinction ranging from Islamic fundamentalism to right-wing populism and the vastness of the geographic area covering China and Russia as well as the Middle East and Africa, from where external security threats to Europe emanate. Both the complexity and the scope of these threats necessitate that the EU employ feasible and effective mechanisms in integrating key third countries in its future defense initiatives within the scope of PESCO.

The cooperation between PESCO and third countries is an area that remains overlooked in the present arrangement. The current set up of PESCO stipulates that member states may invite third countries to take part in projects to which they can bring “substantial added value” but that these third countries do not have decision-making rights. Hence, while leaving the door open to third country involvement, in line with the “all but the institutions” dictum of the EU, this provision runs the risk of hampering any substantial cooperation with third parties in a field where flexible integration applies. Such a rule implies that the EU may be bereft of any meaningful input by key third countries that otherwise play significant roles in matters concerning European security and defense. This understanding excludes countries such as Norway, which is a key player in conflict resolution and mediation; the UK, which is a strong policy actor with a wide geographic outreach; and Turkey, which is a key partner in counterterrorism and a regional pivot in the Middle East and the Balkans with a growing presence in Africa. 

Furthermore, the modality of these countries’ involvement in PESCO also directly impacts the future of EU-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) collaboration, which also remains unclear under the PESCO arrangements. Although it is clear that, especially from the U.S. perspective, PESCO could be perceived as an important step towards burden sharing in the security field, tighter coordination between the EU and NATO particularly concerning capability planning will be necessary to avoid leaving member states having to face competing expectations from both sides. Complementarity rather than conflict should define the EU-NATO relationship after PESCO. Yet, effective EU-NATO collaboration, now also driven by the establishment of PESCO in addition to increasing security imperatives, hinges also on the successful security collaboration between the EU and non-EU member NATO states. This is best demonstrated through the EU’s relationship with Turkey.

EU-NATO relations entered a severe impasse in relation to the contested role of Cyprus in EU-NATO cooperation after its membership in 2004. Turkey vetoed the signing of a security agreement between NATO and Cyprus, which would have led to Cyprus’ inclusion in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) and thus to its inclusion in EU-NATO cooperation. Meanwhile, Cyprus vetoed the EU-Turkey Security Agreement on the exchange of classified material between the two sides and Turkish membership of the European Defense Agency (EDA). This double veto has in effect led to the freezing of the EU-NATO dialogue and prevents any substantial collaborative operation between the EU and NATO. 

The EU-NATO joint declaration adopted in Warsaw in 2016, where Turkey chose not to exercise its veto power, relaunched hopes for cooperation and intensified the strategic partnership amid rising security concerns on both fronts in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Yet, it still remains unclear how this cooperation will move forward given the frozen nature of the Cyprus conflict, with no prospects of resolution in sight. The membership of Cyprus in PESCO and the pressing need for the specification of the modalities of EU-NATO collaboration through PESCO at a time when the overall EU-Turkey relationship is also stagnating constitute causes of concern for the future of PESCO as well as for European security writ large. 

PESCO bears the potential to provide an opportunity to overcome this impasse. However, such compromise may be accomplished only through specifying such modalities that will allow for a meaningful and inclusive contribution of NATO member third parties including, but not exclusive to, Turkey. In principle, and in the short to medium term, this could be achieved via granting NATO member third countries the right to consultation in deciding on PESCO’s policy direction in the Council of Ministers and full participatory rights in PESCO’s capability and operational modules through which defense related projects will be implemented. Given the fact that a treaty change to grant third countries decision-making powers in areas subject to differentiated integration such as PESCO is not probable for the near future, this could be one way to break the impasse.     

Cyprus can be expected to veto this or similar arrangements where they concern the involvement of Turkey. Yet, it is also clear that Cyprus does not possess the required military presence or the capabilities to participate in every PESCO module in which the member states will agree on. Thus, it would be up to the participating member states in the modules to agree on the inclusion of third countries in the projects to which they are contributing. While more operational PESCO projects would benefit from Turkish involvement, especially those that are geared towards the development and transfer of defense technology would overlap with Turkey’s own needs in this field.  

This could be a realistic way to overcome the Cypriot veto and strengthen the European security complex by allowing a substantive contribution from Turkey as well as other NATO countries not belonging to the EU. Participating in nine out of thirty EU-led operations, Turkey has so far been the biggest contributor to European operations after France, Germany, and Britain. Furthermore, this mechanism could provide a novel way to foster mutual trust between the EU and Turkey and possibly contribute to breaking the vicious cycle of blockage with NATO. Perhaps most importantly, such meaningful inclusion could help anchor Turkey in the European security framework at a time when Turkey’s commitment to NATO is increasingly being questioned. Turkey’s decision to purchase a Russian-made S-400 missile system has caused a lot of international controversy over the country’s place in the Western security bloc, yet the fact that the very same country signed an agreement on November 8, 2017 with fellow NATO members France and Italy to develop its national air and missile defense systems attests to the available space through which Europe can engage more strongly with Turkey. Precisely because of Turkey’s domestic troubles, which are reflected in the volatility of its foreign and security policy initiatives, novel forms of anchorage beyond the weakened accession framework are necessary for the sake of wider European security.

This article was initially published by the Istanbul Policy Centre as IPC-Policy Brief, January 2018



FEUTURE Voice No. 2, July 2017

Turkey, One Year After

by Eduard Soler i Lecha, CIDOB

One year ago, on the night of July 15, Turkey came face to face with a coup attempt, the fifth in its history and the first one to fail. With 249 people killed and official buildings -including the parliament – bombed, it was a traumatic episode in the country’s history. The resistance of the institutions and the people against the coup attempt could have acted as a lever to consolidate Turkish democracy and unite the country. But this is not happening.

It is time to take stock of not only the night of July 15 but, above all, of where Turkey stands now, a year onwards. One initial conclusion is that many questions remain unresolved. The Turkish government accuses the cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of President Erdoğan and since 1999 self-exiled in the United States, of being the architect of the coup, and his followers to having acted as the executing arm. Those accused, of course, deny it. Conspiracy theories are multiplying. The absence of a commonly held narrative is not helping heal the wounds.

Not only the attempted coup, but also the measures taken by the government ever since have been traumatic for many. There are tens of thousands of people in prison and at least 150,000 who have lost their jobs in the aftermath of the coup. Newspapers, schools and universities have been shut down. The spectrum of the purge that started out against the Gülenist circles has exceeded this scope. The latest episode has been the arrest of several human rights activists, including the head of Amnesty International Turkey. The country's reputation is suffering in the international arena. These days I recall a conversation I had in Istanbul only four days after the coup attempt. One person, close to the government, tried to reassure me that the purges would be fast, focused and fair. What would this person say to me now?

These measures have contributed to the polarization of the Turkish society, but this is not a novelty. Before July 15, the Turkish society was already divided between those who admire and those who hate President Erdoğan, among those who want to strengthen his power and those who fear an authoritarian drift. The division has hardened even more, as we saw in the April 16 constitutional referendum this year. It is worth mentioning, though, that there are some interesting evolutions: there is a critical current underlying the AKP, and the party risks losing support in urban areas.

This year also reminded us that the Turkish society remains dynamic, plural and resilient. The society resisted a coup, and also wants to preserve democracy and the rule of law. The success of the ‘Justice March’, headed by the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is a clear example to this.

Yet here is one of the key components of this balance: while President Erdoğan is more powerful than he was one year ago, he has also become more vulnerable. On the night of July 15, a military squadron was sent to the hotel where he and his family were staying, either to arrest or even eliminate him. 

His enemies have also multiplied after the post-coup purges, and the constitutional referendum was everything but reassuring for him. He did not gain the resounding victory he had hoped for. He feels threatened, surrounds himself with the faithful, distrusts systematically, and acts with utmost diligence, as any gesture of his could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

So far, the good course of the economy has played a key role in securing the political power of Erdoğan and his party. Many people do not vote for ideology only, but because they see the AKP and Erdoğan as energizers of Turkey’s economy, promoters of public investment and job creation. After the failed coup, a major fear was that consumption would fall and investors would move away. However, the Turkish economy has weathered the crisis and in recent days the government proudly displays the growth figures and the positive trend of the Istanbul stock exchange.

One thing that has been affected by this process is foreign policy. The coup attempt has damaged relations between Turkey and its Western partners, partly because Erdoğan has not felt sufficiently supported by these allies, and partly because these allies consider the measures adopted by the Turkish government to be disproportionate or even counterproductive. Even so, the train crash has been avoided, at least for now.

Taking stock means assessing what went wrong and what went right, so as to improve the situation. In that vein, it would be good for Ankara to start questioning why the defeat of the coup attempt a year ago is too often perceived as a triumph of Erdoğan himself rather than a victory for Turkish democracy.

This article was originally published by El País on July 17, 2017 as part of this newspaper contribution to LENA, an alliance of European newspapers including Die Welt (Germany), El País (Spain), La Repubblica (Italy), Le Figaro (France), Le Soir (Belgium), Tages-Anzeiger and Tribune de Genève (both from Switzerland).



FEUTURE Voice No. 1, June 2017

Turkey’s European Future at a Crossroad: Where do we go from here?

by Nathalie Tocci, IAI, Scientific Coordinator 

In the run-up to Turkey’s April 2017 referendum on a constitutional change, which will enshrine an unprecedented concentration of power – by the standards of any democracy – in the President’s hands, talk has been rife about a suspension of Turkey’s accession process. The chorus became lounder when, upon his narrow victory by 1% of the vote, President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan floated, yet again, the prospect of reinserting the death penalty. In a rather muted victory night, the President hinted at the possibility of two further referenda, one on the death penalty and another on the suspension of EU accession talks. The storm somewhat calmed when the Gymnich informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Malta in late April, at which Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu was invited, came and went without breaking news. Likewise, Erdoğan’s meeting with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk – taking place on the heels of a reportedly disastrous meeting between Erdoğan and US President Donald Trump only a few days before – was fairly constructive. 

But the question remains: has the time come to end to Turkey’s moribund accession process?

To suspend or not to suspend. That is the question

I have long been a passionate advocate of Turkey’s EU future. Since the mid-1990s I have always promoted Turkey’s EU membership as a goal which I believed was instrumental to a particular vision of open society in both Turkey and the EU, which I embrace. In the run-up to the referendum, particularly after the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission released its damming opinion on Turkey’s constitutional package, I wondered whether the Rubicon was being crossed, and the time to suspend the accession process had come. The Venice Commission highlighted how much Turkey’s separation of powers and checks and balances would be hollowed out as a consequence of the constitutional change, once implemented after the elections in 2019. Turkey’s accession negotiations were opened in 2005 on the grounds that, according to the EU, Turkey “sufficiently” fulfilled the Copenhagen political criteria. Those criteria, as well known, include democracy, human rights, rule of law, and minority rights. Given the slippery slope of de-democratisation Turkey has been on for several years now, crowned by the 2017 constitutional change, how could anyone with a straight face claim that Turkey still “sufficiently” meets such criteria?

The question, of course, is rhetorical. This is why, for the first time since 1999, I began harbouring doubts about the accession process. But I have come to believe that, despite the (high) price which the Union would pay by continuing the status quo, the time has not come for a suspension. 

Let me explain why.

The flawed logic of suspension

I believe there are three compelling reasons why the EU should maintain, for the time being, the flame of the accession process alive, no matter how problematic, flawed or empty such process is.

First, is the need to retain an organic tie with Turkish society. I was personally struck by the results of the Turkish referendum last April. As well-known, the referendum campaign was light years away from being free and fair. The referendum campaign and vote was marked by intimidation, attacks, a wide disparity of media space and time given to the two camps, emergency rule, and the jailing of thousands of journalists, activists and political leaders opposing the constitutional change. Incidents of ballot stuffing went viral during the day of the vote itself. All this notwithstanding, 49% of the population had the courage – yes courage – to say no, and voter turnout was over 70% attesting to the importance ascribed by all citizens to the vote itself. Turkey’s citizens demonstrated once again – as they did back in 2002 when the AKP won its first landslide, or in June 2015 when the AKP reduced considerably its share of the vote and the pro-Kurdish HDP first surpassed the 10% electoral threshold – their democratic resilience. Turkey’s citizens demonstrated a degree of democratic maturity which put a few far more established Western democracies to shame. Should Europe abandon that society? My answer, unequivocally, is no. The EU’s embrace of Turkish society, beginning with civil society (as a whole, and not only those critical of the government), should deepen further not reduce. A suspension of the accession process would come alongside a revisiting and reduction of the significant funds channelled by the EU towards Turkey in the framework of pre-accession. EU support for Turkey’s civil society would therefore reduce sharply. This is precisely the opposite of what the Union should do now, and certainly the opposite of what Turkish civil society, disillusioned as it is with the Union, demand.

Second, let’s be clear: a suspension, while legally different from termination, is politically tantamount to it. All things related to enlargement in EU decision-making, require unanimity amongst Member States in the Council. As well known, several Member States harbour doubts if not outright opposition to Turkey’s accession process that is not simply motivated by the sorry state of democracy and human rights in the country. As revealed by European debates in the early 2000s when Turkey was undergoing its silent democratic revolution, Turkey is too big, too poor and too Muslim for some, regardless of the state of its democracy and human rights protection. Were the EU to suspend the accession process with Turkey, I struggle to see how these opponents would ever agree to reactivate the accession process, even if Turkey would become a shining example of liberal democracy. And what if Turkey were to re-embark on a path of democratisation, human rights protection and rule of law at some point in future? Were this to happen, following a suspension of the accession process today, Turkey would likely receive a cold shoulder from the EU in what would be a major European strategic blunder. Unlikely as that prospect may appear today, let us remind ourselves that politics can and does change quickly, at times far more rapidly and abruptly for anyone to predict. Turkey itself is no exception. While the current political situation looks unlikely to change (for the better) in the near future, the dynamism of Turkey’s polity is such that unexpected U-turns cannot be ruled out. In its history, from the Tanzimat Edict in 1839 to the establishment of the Republic in 1923, from the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1950 to the silent democratic revolution in 2001-2005, Turkish society has repeatedly proven its ability to change, at times abruptly and for the better.  

Finally, is the imperative not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The accession process, which has been hollow for quite some time now, retains two critical and interconnected functions. As a candidate country, Turkey receives disproportionate attention in terms of personnel and resources compared to other far larger countries such as the United States, Russia and China. One only needs to think that the EU Delegation in Ankara, with its over 200 staff members, is the largest EU delegation – of which there are 139 – in the world. Were the accession process to be suspended, it would be difficult to justify such a massive EU effort in terms of staff and resources. Alongside, the accession process provides a rules- and norm-based framework for the relationship: a normative anchor which justifies and provides the context for EU players to continue making the case for democracy and human rights in Turkey. This is something that cannot be said of other global and regional players, from the United States to Russia, from China to Saudi Arabia. 

Some rightly argue that the EU anchor for Turkey’s democratisation has long gone. Indeed, it has eroded over the years in view of the EU’s lack of credibility when it comes to Turkey’s membership prospects. Particularly in those golden years of Turkey’s democratisation in the first half of the 2000s, the damage done by European leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy who began openly opposing Turkey’s membership, was incalculable. As Turkey has been sliding down slope of de-democratisation, the EU has certainly not succeeded in preventing the freefall. Yet, empty or phoney as it may be, the accession process is still formally in place, and does provide the space and legitimacy for the EU to make the case for rights and rules in Turkey. Without the accession process or an alternative rules-based framework in its stead, the ground for making that case would not just be shaky, it would simply not exist at all.     

Hence, before considering a suspension, an alternative framework for the EU-Turkey relationship ought to be thought through and eventually be put in place. That alternative should no doubt be pragmatic and include a structured form of cooperation on all those issues that are important to both the EU and Turkey, from trade and investment, to migration and mobility, from energy and climate to foreign policy and counterterrorism. On these very issues the EU and Turkey are already working together. The EU-Turkey statement agreed in March last year, problematic as it is, does provide a framework to cooperate over migration and mobility. The EU and Turkey are exploring the possible opening of negotiations over a modernised customs union to include services, procurement and agriculture, although differences remain notably over transport, Turkey’s participation in free trade negotiations with third countries, or the application of the modernised customs union to the Republic of Cyprus which Turkey does not recognise. Security cooperation notably in the field of counterterrorism has picked up in recent years, although tensions and limits exist due to the state of human rights in Turkey and of differences over the nature of the Kurdish PKK/PYD or of Fetullah Gulen’s movement rebranded by the Turkish government as FETÖ, i.e., the Fetullah terrorist organisation. But above all what is lacking is an overall norm- and rule-based institutional framework within which all these thematic elements of cooperation could unfold. Without it the relationship would boil down to becoming purely transactional, against the interests both of the EU and of Turkey’s society. Pragmatic the EU must certainly be. But as the EU Global Strategy argues, such pragmatism should be principled. Principled pragmatism would warn against throwing the baby out with the bathwater: i.e. suspending the accession process until and unless an alternative rules-based framework for the relationship is put in place.

When it comes to Turkey, the EU finds itself in a Catch 22: it is dammed if it does (suspend) and dammed if it doesn’t. Not suspending certainly comes at a high price to the EU’s credibility and, in turn, to its identity. But in the case of its relationship with Turkey, that credibility has been wafer thin for many years now. Suspending now would mean letting down Turkey’s society, it would mean handing over the keys of the relationship to the ideological opponents of Turkey’s European future, and it would mean severing a rules-based anchor, weak as it may be, without having secured a more promising normative anchor in its stead. The accession anchor may be severe unilaterally by Erdoğan, it may have to be severed by the EU (for instance if Turkey were to reintroduce the death penalty) or it may be consensually severed by Turkey and the EU together. Precisely because none of these scenarios can be ruled out it becomes all the more important to work immediately on an alternative rules-based contractual framework in the relationship while the accession process is still formally in place.

Weighing these respective cons, my scales tilt towards the status quo. Time for a suspension has not come (yet).