How to forge ties with post-Brexit Europe?

How to forge ties with post-Brexit Europe?

Former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein once said Turkey was too big, too poor and too different to become a full member of the European Union.

Indeed, the opponents of Turkey’s EU membership have always come up with plenty of arguments to undermine the process. Some claimed that Turkey was geographically more Middle Eastern than European, some focused on the income disparity and the army of unqualified poor workers waiting to invade Europe’s job market, while others stood against Turkey’s membership simply because it is Muslim.

Turkey has indeed lost its appetite for reforms and moved further away from the Copenhagen criteria since it started accession negotiations in 2005. Yet, looking back over the years, the blunt statements of European leaders mocking Turkey’s accession ideal were of little help either. The same goes for the EU decision to accept Greek Cyprus as a member in 2004 despite the lack of a settlement on Cyprus. Ultimately, the decisions fueled suspicions among Turks that there was no place for Turkey in the EU – even if it fulfilled all the requirements one day – since the EU was a Christian club and would remain so.

The long-stalled negotiations between Ankara and Brussels were reinvigorated last November as a result of the contentious refugee deal. Under a May agreement, the EU agreed to provide financial aid for refugees in Turkey, liberalize visas for Turkish citizens and revive Turkey’s EU accession process in return for Turkish moves to limit the number of asylum seekers coming to Europe.

But in reality, the domestic political contexts in both Europe and Turkey are not conducive to Turkey’s EU membership. 

Given the rise of populist, anti-immigration and anti-Islam movements in Europe, the issue of enlargement no longer seems to be on the EU’s agenda.

Regulations which were put into force under the state of emergency declared after the failed coup of July 15 have drawn criticisms from the EU, and the visa deal was subsequently postponed until the end of the year. 
Today, Turkey’s accession negotiations have turned into a blame game on both sides. A number of crucial accession chapters are blocked by Greek Cyprus’ veto, and Europe is also dragging its feet because Turkey does not meet EU standards on democracy and the rule of law. In contrast, Ankara argues that the opening of new chapters would provide an impetus to improve democratic standards in the country.

Faced with such a stalemate, is there a way to define a new relationship between Turkey and the EU? This was one of the hot topics discussed at the latest Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) Foreign Policy Forum panel last week. Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) and a visiting scholar of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reflected on the current state of EU-Turkey ties from a historical perspective, presenting an alternative strategy to end this vicious circle.

Ülgen considered Brexit a window of opportunity to build a new narrative between Ankara and Brussels. “Even though Britain wants to exit Europe, it wants to maintain full access to the single market. This is going to push Europe toward a direction that it had resisted before. Whatever model the U.K is going to negotiate with the EU may actually be a blueprint for our relations.” 

For Ülgen, Turkish-EU ties would be highly transactional and based on mutual benefit rather than a convergence of values. “The membership process was designed to drive a convergence of values. But the new framework will miss this important component,” said Ülgen.  

Certainly there are questions to be raised. Is it possible to defend such a framework at the domestic level, given that negotiations will no longer have any transformative power over Turkey? 

Ülgen gave the refugee deal as a perfect example of such transactional understanding already taking shape. 
But how is that any different than German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s infamous offer of “privileged partnership” in 2004? Ülgen asserted that the privileged partnership was an ambiguous concept. What he proposed instead is a complementary framework based on economic integration without abandoning an ultimate accession target. 

“Accession dynamics have lost their credibility to the extent that they generate acrimony and hostile feelings on both sides. We cannot build a constructive relationship on that basis anymore, unfortunately. When the political environment both in Turkey and Europe changes in our favor, we can reinvigorate accession.”
Sounds like a realistic and constructive antidote to political naïveté.