Debate on a new model in Turkish-EU ties to intensify: Expert
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The current standstill in Turkey’s EU accession process will continue in the short term as it suits both sides, according to a scholar. In the medium term, however, debates will intensify for a new model, Professor Sinem Akgül Açıkmeşe has said. “Informal debates are already continuing for different scenarios on Turkish-EU relations,” Açıkmeşe, from Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, recently told the Daily News
They are at a standstill. That’s also how the EU defines it too. There is a stalemate; accession talks are not moving forward. The EU has been criticizing Turkey for moving away from the democratic reform process. We cannot draw a positive picture of the accession process. Otherwise there is an understanding that Turkey is an important partner to Europe and that relations should continue on the framework of partnership.
The meeting of the Association Council after four years of an interval was symbolically important even if it has not produced a significant outcome. Still, it shows that both sides value the importance of keeping the dialogue channels open.
The European Parliament’s decision to suspend accession negotiations was an expected outcome, but its previous similar decision was not implemented by other EU institutions. The European Commission is not in favor of proposing to member states the suspension of the talks. However, the talks are in effect suspended, as new chapters cannot be opened and no chapters can be closed.
How about the member states?
They are not ready to take such a decision, especially in terms of the migration deal. But in the June 2018 decision, it was stated that Turkey was distancing itself from European standards and that new negotiation chapters will not be opened. What they are not saying officially is being said indirectly. They are avoiding saying “we are suspending or terminating the talks.”
On the contrary, they continue to underline that Turkey remains a candidate country and, at the same time, a strategic partner. There seems to be a dual approach. On the one hand, Turkey is still accepted as a candidate, but nothing moves on that side, on the other hand, Turkey is a valuable partner that can make important contributions on certain issues like migration, the fight against terrorism, energy, transportation and trade. These issues are seen as areas where cooperation could be intensified.
What will it take to take relations back on track? What is the EU’s essential expectation?
In the short term there is just one expectation, but afterwards, obviously, there are other criteria to be fulfilled as accession is a complete package including several political, economic and legislation criteria. In the short term the EU’s expectation is about fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law and democratic standards.
If talks are officially suspended or terminated it would be highly unlikely for Turkey to stop cooperating altogether with Europe. Why do you think member states are avoiding making that decision? It cannot simply be the fear of putting the refugee deal at risk.
Obviously it is not that simple and there is not just one reason. From an idealist perspective, the principle of pacta sunt servanda (a Latin term meaning agreements must be kept) still exists in international relations. There are decades-long accession relations between Turkey and the EU that has continued since 1987. Whether there is intention or not on completing this process (with membership) is a different issue, but the EU cannot just throw away this process.
From a more realist point of view, neither side would like to harm trade relations. And obviously the migration issue is an overwhelming concern. The fact that Turkey is hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees is extremely important for the EU.
In addition, while I don’t want to attribute an over-exaggerated importance, Turkey’s geopolitical position is still significant especially in terms of the EU’s problematic neighborhood policy.
It looks hesitant to take the steps that will take the process ahead. While it is a must for Turkey to fulfill membership criteria, the government might think that it is being subjected to double standards. Indeed, there are some double standards, like the Cyprus issue. Both sides are to be blamed for the current stalemate.
But I feel the status quo suits both sides.
Why does it suit both?
First of all, the EU is in the midst of a transition, its only problem is not Turkey. It has lots of problems: Populism, terrorism and how to how to go on after Brexit. The Turkish dossier is a minor one, yet not one that could be closed entirely.
Turkey is also preoccupied with so many complex problems in its domestic and external politics. The concern in Turkey is based on the conviction of “whatever we will do, the EU will find an argument not to take us in.”
What to expect for the period ahead?
In the short term the status quo will continue. There is an informal debate for different scenarios on Turkey-EU relations. The question of “is there a need for a different model?” is in Europe’s agenda. When interpreting signals coming from Europe, it looks like the EU wants to intensify its relations with Turkey on certain areas and might opt for a model for differentiated integration. But there is nothing clear yet. In the medium term I expect the debates on Turkey to intensify. If there will not be a miraculous change for the sake of full membership, an alternative model will be opened for debate. It won’t actually be a brand new model. The EU has existing forms of relationship with third parties. One of them could be revised for Turkey and added up to the current framework.
But at that point I question the intentions of the EU. Look at the customs union for instance. It needs to be revised, but this is again tied to certain conditions. And this time it is not only related to the human rights problem, but also to the Cyprus issue.
Is the Cyprus question a real obstacle to updating the customs union?
Indeed. And that brings us to the issue of the EU’s real intentions. If Turkey were to fully fulfill the democratic criteria, the Cyprus issue would continue to stand as another criterion, because the EU expects Turkey to implement the customs union to all member states, and Cyprus would block the modification of the customs union if this would not be the case.
So, actually, if Turkey were to decide to undertake the reforms and were to take all the necessary steps, the EU would panic.
Sinem Akgül Açıkmeşe is a professor at the International Relations department at Kadir Has University. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MA in European Studies from Ankara University.
She studied at the European Institute of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) for her MSc degree.
She has completed her PhD in European Studies-International Relations at Ankara University.
She was a visiting fellow/scholar at various institutions including the University of California-San Diego (2007), Stellenbosch University (2016) and Harvard University (2017).
She is the associate editor of the European Review of International Studies and a member of the governing board of the International Studies Association in the U.S.