Turkey and the EU: A troublesome flirt

Turkey and the EU: A troublesome flirt

How many people remember the historic photograph in which a majority of the members of the European Parliament, including socialists, conservatives, liberals and environmentalists, all united, declared their support for the start of Turkey’s accession talks? That was not so long ago. The vote took place on Dec. 15, 2004, with a result of 262 to 407. MPs voted and held placards bearing the words “Yes” or “Oui” along with logos of Turkey and the EU.

If experience is indeed the accumulation of past mistakes, Turkey must be a very experienced country. Of course, whether or not Turkey has learned anything worthy after accumulating some much experience is a question that deserves to be discussed at a lengthy discussion, naturally a closed-door one conducted under Chatham House rules for the security of the participants.

Fourteen years and a few months later, meeting again on Turkey’s membership, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, this time not holding placards carrying the Turkey-EU logo, adopted with 47 votes in favor, seven against and 10 abstentions a report penned by EU Turkey Rapporteur Kati Piri – who was shunned by top Turkish executives during her trip to Turkey last year. Naturally Turkey immediately declared the report “absolutely unacceptable.” But it might not be fortune-telling in view of the present-day climate in Turkey-EU relations that the meeting in March may most probably endorse the report.

What did the report say? It called for a formal suspension of EU accession talks because of persistent rights violations in the country. It included issues such as corruption claims, human rights violations, shut-down of 160 media organizations, violation of rights defenders’ rights, including LGBTI organizations, the imprisonment of journalists as well as businessman Osman Kavala – allegedly on grounds he masterminded the 2017 Gezi riots – and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) former co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, and the increase in the asylum applications to the EU member states.

With a carrot and stick approach, the report, while suggesting the suspension of accession talks, left the door open for an update of the Customs Union agreement stressing such a development might pave the way for democratic reforms. Yet, regarding visa liberalization, the report was not very generous as it demanded that Turkey should firmly abide by the EU’s 72 criterion, which included Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s red line: A reform in anti-terrorism law.

Even if endorsed by the European Parliament, an EP call for the suspension of Turkey accession talks will be advisory in nature. Yet, it will be the first of its kind in EU history. When did the Europeans stop considering the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that they revered to so much as a “Muslim but yet a liberal party” that they believed was sincerely wanted to transform Turkey into a country that acquired European norms and values? What was that made Europe start seeking ways of pushing Turkey out of the accession talks process?

The vote at the Foreign Affairs Committee or even a vote at the European Parliament urging the suspension of Turkey’s accession process cannot mean much unless the EU leaders share the same opinion. Yet, even if not performing well and deserved to be bitterly criticized, Turkey cannot be a country that can be kicked around. On the contrary, not only Turkey might be ridiculed with such short-sighted and offensive futile efforts, but a disengaged Ankara’s derailment from European norms and values, including individual rights and freedom of thought, might create such a state of affairs that not only the Turks but Europe pay a very heavy price as a consequence.

However, rather than the suspension of the accession talks process, it is wiser for Europe to engage Turkey more and may serve best those strongly supporting Turkey’s painful flirt with the EU.

A Turkey disenchanted with European norms, values and, worse, institutions headed by the Council of Europe will be a far worse nightmare than a scuzzy suggestion by a pro-government officious newspaper that Turkey should seriously consider allowing Syrian refugees to cross into Europe.

Turkey, European Union, Diplomacy