Preparing for a new blueprint in EU-Turkey relations?

Preparing for a new blueprint in EU-Turkey relations?

Relations between Ankara and Brussels have been facing a downwards spiral during the past decade. Publically, this trend gained momentum in 2013, when Ankara clamped down on environmental protestors in what become known as the Gezi Park protests. Diplomatically, Turkey’s difficult relationship with the EU predates 2013 by over a decade. From the inception of the Turkish accession process, broken promises and the continued freezing of chapters created a set of distorted incentive mechanisms, which continue to affect any attempts at building trust, reconciliation, and improved relations. A classic example continues to be the 2007 freezing of accession chapters by France and the blocking of chapters by Cyprus in 2009 through the European Council—both of which set the tone for future relations. Apart from distorting credibility in accession outcomes and thereby gradually rendering the institutional mechanisms of accession void, it also created a new populist incentive mechanism, commonly known in EU circles as “scapegoating.” 

This familiar concept revolves around leaders shifting blame towards EU institutions after or during major summits in order to gain electoral support or popularity in their national constituencies. With public opinion tainted in Europe, and diminished belief in European aspirations among Turks, it only became a matter of time before the vicious cycle of electoral politics allowed for European nationalist parties and Turkey’s government to start taking advantage of this tactic as well. Today, EU-Turkey relations face the most challenging circumstances observed in recent history. The danger of ending the accession process is obvious: The history of multilateralism teaches us that institutions and structures generally take more time, coordination, and effort to build than the simple procedure of tearing them dowYet, Turkey’s accession process continues to distort incentive mechanisms, which is leading to conflictual relations with the EU. Whereas a new structure is needed to replace an increasingly void accession process, each attempt at restoring normalized relations is being politicized. The Customs Union provides a viable replacement (or complementary) option, but is likely to face continued obstruction unless Ankara opens up to more serious engagements with Europe. The upcoming elections and Turkey’s economy will largely determine this path. Other areas like visa liberalization and migration equally face political maneuvering, which highlight the difficulty in finding new openings for improved relations. 

This leaves the option of cooperating on foreign and security policy in areas like Iraq, as a final measure to improve trust through regional relations and energy ties. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is likely to welcome EU-Turkish involvement in the area, as Europe continues to have high levels of credibility among Iraqi Kurds. Today, the EU is Iraq’s second largest trading partner, ahead of the US, and only behind China. Trade, demographic stabilization, and reconstruction efforts are key components of de-radicalization, energy diversification, and regional stability. From a domestic and economic perspective, this could serve Ankara’s interests. An important set of Turkish businesses remain heavily invested in future energy and regional development contracts signed with the KRG for 2016 and 2019. 

With a potential easing of relations, the Turkish government could save its KRG investments, while reorienting itself towards more profitable energy and trade objectives. In this case, the structures available for EU-Turkey cooperation range from bilateral initiatives to trade agreements under the mandate of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the EC. Such efforts could also be assisted by increased civil society engagement, Track II diplomacy, dialogue projects, trainings, and shared private sector energy investments.  If successfully coordinated, there is a chance of getting the ball rolling again. This could increase trust and garner leading government attention through EU-Turkey high-level dialogue meetings, leaders’ summits, and private sector involvement. In order to break the counter-productive cycle of distorted incentive structures, both sides will need to engage more and explore new areas of foreign, energy, and, economic cooperation.

Samuel Doveri Vesterbye is the Managing Director of the European Neighborhood Council (ENC). This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2018 issue.

European Union, Turkey, foreign policy, Gezi Park protests, opinion, EU bid