Toward an unnamed new relationship with the European Union

Toward an unnamed new relationship with the European Union

May 9 was Europe Day. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a message for the occasion. “Our country, which has been a part of Europe historically, geographically and culturally for centuries, wishes to maintain its EU accession process, which it regards as a strategic goal, in an understanding of mutual respect and equality on a win-win basis,” he said. 

Erdoğan has for some time pronounced that full membership of the EU remains a strategic goal. His latest words may be interpreted as an expression of the desire to reduce the high pressure that built up during the recent referendum campaign.   

However, his reference to the goal of full membership does not change the fact that Ankara’s membership perspective now only exists on paper, and accession talks have de facto stopped.  

At this point, both sides find themselves in a dilemma. On the one hand, even though it is not pronounced officially, Turkey’s accession process has been de facto suspended. However, neither side wants a divorce, as there is a series of issues that await solutions or at least require negotiations. 

Europe does not have any choice but to continue working closely with Turkey to fight ISIL terror, which constitutes a serious threat in terms of its domestic security. It also needs Turkey’s cooperation to keep under control a refugee influx that could rekindle any moment. To achieve this, the refugee deal struck in March 2016 must be continued. 

When viewed from Ankara’s angle, the EU continues to be Turkey’s most vital foreign trade partner at a time when problems are rising in the economy and when foreign markets are shrinking. Turkey’s exports were around $142 billion last year, $68 billion of which were sent to EU countries. Almost half (47.9 percent) of our exports thus went to the EU market. The prospective updating of the customs union deal, which is on the agenda of both sides, will broaden Turkey’s economic interests. 

So no matter what kind of feelings they have for each other, both sides in this relationship know that they have to work closely. “Both of us [Turkey and the EU] are destined to find a way forward together,” the EU’s new Ankara representative, Christian Berger, told Hürriyet recently.

Recent signs point to relations being shaped into a new framework, in which accession talks are not held but political matters such as the refugee issue, terrorism, and various economic interests are conducted without being affected too much. Of course, this is a big shift away from the relationship foreseen at the beginning of the 2000s.

President Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels at the end of this month for the NATO summit is important in terms of seeing how this relationship structure will shape. He will be meeting European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and the outline of the roadmap regarding the new terms of the Ankara-Brussels relationship could be drawn in this meeting. 

However, the most critical junction point is the general election in Germany to be held at the end of September. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to conduct a campaign free of the refugee crisis, and thus wants to keep tensions with Turkey under control until at least the end of September.  

The new framework of EU relations will become much clearer in light of the outcome of the German election.

One pleasing recent development was the victory in France of new President Emmanuel Macron, who has a strong commitment to the EU project. 

With Turkey’s accession process falling into secondary importance, the weight assigned in Turkey-EU dialogue to topics such as democracy, press freedom and the law will become one of the most important issues to keep observing.