EU will leave decision to freeze accession talks to Turkey

EU will leave decision to freeze accession talks to Turkey

The European Parliament is set to vote to suspend membership negotiations with Turkey. It looks like it will take a miracle for European parliamentarians to decide otherwise. 

The parliament decision is not binding, but it will put important pressure on decision-makers in member countries. Although there is no sympathy for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan among European heads of state and governments, they seem to want to avoid being the side that suspends the talks. Not only they are unwilling to give ammunition to Erdoğan to fuel his anti–EU rhetoric, they still seem to trust in the value of remaining engaged with Turkey.

This is not the first time we see relations between Ankara and Brussels taking a nose dive. In fact, in 1997 Turkey decided to partially freeze its relations with the EU after the EU summit in Luxembourg in 1997 refused to grant it candidate country status. At the time, the EU was wrong to take that course. A year later it reversed its decision. 

Today the situation is different, as the EU has ample evidence at hand to prove that Turkey does not fulfill the Copenhagen criteria to carry on the accession process.

However, EU capitals will also have to take a political decision. That will depend on their answer to this question: What will change if accession talks are suspended by the EU. Would it be better for the EU to freeze the talks or challenge Erdoğan to be the one to take that decision?

Brussels’ move to freeze membership talks will not bring about any change either in Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule in domestic politics or in his attitude to Europe. 

The EU’s decision will not be about judging the consequences of the refugee deal. One thing is for sure, the deal based on Turkey preventing refugees’ passage to Greece in exchange for getting financial support and visa-free travel has so far been a success in terms of the EU’s expectations. 

In contrast to 115,000 refugees crossing in the January–February 2016 period, only 3,300 crossings were registered for the June–July period, according to data provided by the European Stability Initiative that is closely monitoring the deal. The death toll in the Aegean between January and March, which was 366, fell to seven in May–July. Currently the monthly average of crossings is only around 100. 

ESI experts say refugees have not changed their direction to the Central Mediterranean route. They add that not only have the numbers on the Mediterranean route not seen a significant surge, the nationalities of the refugees using the Mediterranean route and the Aegean route are different.

The number of refugees relocated from Turkey to Europe is stuck at around 2,000, whereas it was originally planned to be around 70,000. Not only has Europe not delivered on that relocation part of the deal, the amount of financial assistance it has transferred to Turkey so far has been a disappointment for Ankara.

 European officials claim that in view of EU standards they have been unusually fast in transferring part of the financial assistance, but admit that it should have been much faster and efficient to meet Turkish expectations.

Visa liberalization had been set to happen as the two sides came very close to overcoming the stalemate stemming from the EU’s demand to change Turkey’s anti-terror law. However, that was before the failed coup and its aftermath, and now Turkey’s stance is highly unlikely to change.

Still, the migrant deal will not weigh too much in the EU’s decision on suspending Turkey’s accession process. I am not convinced that the Europeans are concerned about a new refugee flow if the deal collapses. With the security measures taken in the land and in the sea, there is now enough deterrence to stop refugees from taking that route.

As I said earlier, the decision will be more about what kind of decision should be taken to deal with Erdoğan.

 That requires strategic thinking, which European leaders can still resort to despite negative public opinion about Turkey. However, that opportunity will change when election cycles start in key European capitals next year. Strategic thinking will then be replaced by short-term political calculations that will weigh on electoral campaigns.

But we still have a couple of months until then.