Turkey will realize it ‘cannot be a free rider outside the EU’

Turkey will realize it ‘cannot be a free rider outside the EU’

It is no secret that Turkey is very - and rather positively - intrigued by Brexit. There is nothing surprising about this, as it is no longer a secret that the Turkish government wants an “a la carte relationship” with the EU. It would like to benefit from economic cooperation with Brussels while getting rid of the democratic requirements of membership.

However, Bahadır Kaleağası, the CEO and secretary general of the country’s top business organization, the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), recently told me that it would be “misleading” to take Brexit as a new benchmark for future EU–Turkey relations. 

“Brexit emerged as a bug of the system. All mainstream politicians argued rationally on a factual basis against it, but it happened as a product of post-truth democracy moment that we are in. It is not a regulated, well-conceptualized system that we are talking about when we mention Brexit,” said Kaleağası, noting that we don’t yet know whether or not the outcome will be better than it was before. 

When I reminded him that some in Turkey are not keen on the EU’s “democratic straightjacket,” which is why there was a high interest in Brexit, he said a “jacket tailored for the U.K.” after Brexit might not suit Turkey.

“That jacket will be the jacket of a technical relationship regulating the British economy and the European single market. But the U.K. has other garments; it is a country of the rule of law, it is a financial power, it has soft power, and its human development scores are higher than Turkey. If it took the jacket that is tailored for the U.K., Turkey would not be able to look the same,” said Kaleağası, who until taking up his new post had been TÜSİAD’s representative in Brussels since 1995. 

He stressed that Turkey cannot remain economically competitive while getting rid of the EU’s conditionality on democracy, saying Ankara will “realize that it cannot be a free rider outside the EU system.”

The EU day 

While there is not much to celebrate about Turkey–EU relations on Europe Day (May 9), the result of the French elections gives us some room for optimism. France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, vowed in a tweet before the election to “do everything to help Turkey’s democrats, who are continuing to struggle.” That shows he is aware of the need to consolidate democratic forces in Turkey. This cannot happen by officially suspending membership talks, an option that has been put on the table in Europe.

Kaleağası is also optimistic. He recalled a visit to the Elysee Palace about a three years ago, in which Macron participated as an adviser to the president.

“We had a frank discussion on how to avoid emotional ups and downs in French-Turkish relations and how to reactivate the EU’s transformative power on Turkey’s European integration process. There was also a common understanding that in the likely evolution of the EU towards a more flexible institutional architecture composed of different circles of integration, with a more federal Eurozone at the core, Turkey’s membership of the larger circle could be facilitated. That would be a common European interest. Now that Mr. Macron will lead France, and considering the prospect of a re-energized Berlin-Paris axis in the aftermath of the German election in September, we could also expect a more constructive EU-Turkey accession partnership,” he said.