A critical turn in Turkey-EU relations

A critical turn in Turkey-EU relations

Both Ankara and Brussels seem divided about the near future of Turkey’s relations with the European Union. 

The divide in Brussels is not new, yet it has been in one of its deepening moods, especially for the past month, because of the police's response to the Taksim protesters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gives full backing to the police, describing their actions toward the protesters as “heroic.” Despite President Abdullah Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s statements admitting the police's response was the reason for the escalation of a small scale environmentalist protest into Turkish history’s biggest and longest social unrest, Erdoğan still denies that the police had used excessive force, including pepper gas and water cannon, in order to disperse peaceful demonstrations. He says there was a plot by “foreign powers” who did not want to see a prosperous and happy Turkey under his rule, thus he reacts more strongly as there are more criticisms from Europe.

This added to the already existing Turkey skepticism within the EU and was perhaps seen as an excuse to reject the opening of new chapters for negotiations on membership. And when Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bağış linked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s attitude to the coming German elections in September in a sarcastic way, Berlin reacted strongly. Bağış made a softer statement afterwards about being misunderstood but apparently that was not enough. The Turkish Foreign Minister has been in touch with his German counterpart Guidio Westerwelle a number of times in the last few days to smooth things over.

And it is not only Germany. Austria and the Netherlands openly and some others, definitely including Greek Cypriots, covertly have already formed a front to stand against the opening up of a new chapter with Turkey.

Ankara is divided, too. Turkish main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been busy writing letters to European social democrat and socialist leaders in order not to punish Turkey while trying to give a lesson to the Erdoğan government. But it seems there is a divide within the ruling AKP, too. Those who seek to be seen as closer to Erdoğan, as the election time comes closer, are for a tougher stance, like cutting political relations with the EU, as former Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz did back in 1997. But ministers like Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, who have concerns about Turkey’s economic performance without an EU anchor under the dire global liquidity circumstances, and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, who knows how difficult it would be to mend the fences once they are broken, are for a more careful position. But as in all other issues, it is Erdoğan who is to decide what to do in case the EU decides not to open another chapter on Wednesday June 26th.

And what will happen regarding the future of Turkish-EU relations, if the Commission decides to open another chapter? That is a big uncertainty too, but for now, all attentions are focused on overcoming the current crisis.