The way forward for Turkey and EU

The way forward for Turkey and EU

A feeling of pessimism binds participants of international conferences these days. While we complain about how domestic politics has hijacked Turkish foreign policy, others state their worries about their country’s future. But, is this a relief? Not, at all.

We face many uncertainties in the international system. Nation-states have fallen short of effectively confronting the complex nature of threats in a globalized world. When the world is in dire need of leadership, the Donald Trump administration in the United States defies the basic principles of liberal democratic order by openly challenging its institutions. 

What’s worse, the language of diplomacy has been lost. The era of great statesmen seems to be a thing of the past, having been replaced by inflammatory rhetoric and vulgarity. And what makes it scarier is that the loss of diplomatic caution may result in turning preventable disputes into hot conflicts in the near future.
Against this somber background, the 12th annual Brussels Forum, the signature conference of the German Marshall Fund (GMF), took place in Brussels between March 23 and 25, bringing together policymakers and experts from different sectors to discuss the most pressing global challenges affecting transatlantic cooperation. Sessions at the forum encouraged debate among participants on critical issues which fuel uncertainty, frustration and inward-looking sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic, such as uneven economic growth, terrorism, refugees, Russia and instability in the Middle East.

This year’s forum also coincided with the 60th anniversary of the European Union’s founding Treaty of Rome, which was fêted with bittersweet joy given the risk of the bloc’s dissolution in the post-Brexit world. 

Being a participant from Turkey at the nadir of Turkey-EU relations, and in the wake of the Turkish-Dutch diplomatic spat, I inevitably found myself responding to questions about the April 16 referendum on charter reforms.

In many aspects, the referendum outcome is going to be a watershed in the course of Turkey-EU relations.

A report recently released by the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council, suggests that the proposed amendments will remove the necessary checks and balances in the system and thus violate the separation of powers. The report further criticizes the referendum process, saying the current state of emergency does not provide the proper democratic setting to hold a vote.

In the event that the amendments are accepted, the Venice Commission’s report might serve as a legal basis to suspend accession talks with Turkey. 

Furthermore, the reinstitution of the death penalty – as suggested several times by President Tayyip Erdoğan – will suffice to put the final nail in the coffin as execution openly contradicts the Copenhagen criteria. 

As far as Brussels is concerned, Turkey has long since drifted away from the Copenhagen criteria and has instead been challenging Europe with its own Ankara criteria based on strong political leadership and “national” values over those of the West.

Up until today, neither side dared to rock the boat and break off ties, meaning they continued to play make-believe by keeping the long stalled accession talks on life support.

In truth, both sides are aware that the current state of relations is not sustainable. 

Both Turkey and the EU have gone through their own internal transformation since the start of the accession process. The EU has suffered from expansion fatigue and has increasingly turned inward, particularly since the euro crisis in 2010. It is not certain whether or not the EU will survive its internal crisis.

Turkey, for its part, has also gone through a political transformation, producing what has been dubbed the “new Turkey.”

The Cyprus deal in 2004 and the anti-Turkish rhetoric in the following years dashed Turks’ hopes for full membership while Europe’s ambivalent stance with regard to PKK terrorism caused frustration. But it is also true that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government lost its appetite for negotiations as it consolidated power.

Today, the EU membership objective is no longer a motivator for Turkish leaders, as Turkey has set its own local and national development agenda. 

In addition, the EU has lost its leverage on Turkey. In this respect, mutual blackmail and the use of inflammatory rhetoric will only exacerbate problems between Turkey and Europe, which are way too important to fail. 

Thus, the only realistic way forward is to continue relations on a transactional basis so as to integrate the new Turkey in Europe. And in this respect, the refugee deal – even though it undermined Europe’s soft power at the time, appears as the only operational tool left to rebuild and redefine relations outside the accession framework. 

A pragmatic cooperation minus the transfer of values is likely to be the key to Turkey-EU relations in the post-referendum process.