Business as usual in Turkey-EU ties

Business as usual in Turkey-EU ties

The unanimous decision by EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday to allow the opening of negotiations on Chapter 22 - which deals with regional policies - in Turkey’s accession talks, but to postpone the actual negotiations until the fall, is a face saving formula for both sides, representing little in concrete terms but a lot in political terms.

What must be noted here is that Ankara appears pleased with this outcome, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu denying claims that the EU decision represents a kicking of the tin can further down the road. “The 22nd Chapter has been opened and the subject is closed. We have to look ahead. There is no postponement anyway,” he told reporters in Ankara after the EU decision.

Even Prime Minister Erdoğan, who recently refused to recognize the European Parliament because of the critical resolution it adopted on Turkey over the police brutality against Gezi Park demonstrators, welcomed the news from Luxembourg, saying it was what they expected. Of course, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it must be a duck, as the saying goes.

In other words what the EU decision represents is a conditional postponement of Turkey’s accession talks to a future date when, given the circumstances of the day, the negotiations may or may not resume. But, politically speaking, both sides appear happy over this outcome and even Chancellor Merkel can turn to her electorate now and argue that she did not take a “laissez faire” attitude towards Turkey.

Turkey’s EU perspective is as much about perceptions as it is about facts. The bottom line here is that for all the hard talk emanating from Ankara against the EU, the Erdoğan government simply could not risk a severance of ties with the Union at a time of political uncertainty at home and in the region, and especially when the world economy is clearly entering a new phase following U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s recent speech.

To the contrary this latest development has provided an occasion for Ankara to repeat that it is committed to the EU perspective as a strategic choice for Turkey. Turkey needs this anchor for a host of reasons, of course, and all the “we can drop the EU if we want” talk is purely for domestic political consumption.

Much the same applies to the EU side. Tuesday’s decision on Turkey also represents a unanimous decision by the EU to continue membership talks with Ankara in principle, with the notion of eventual full membership remaining in sight, despite claims by some member states that Turkey is not eligible because it is not European.

No matter what the street may be saying in some European countries about Turkish membership, it is clear that EU leaders are not in a position to squander what political and economic advantages accrue from Turkey’s growing economy and increasing influence in a part of the world that remains of crucial importance to Europe. Many important European leaders, as well as European officials, repeated this over the past few days in the lead-up to the decision arrived at in Luxembourg.

As an aside here, a mention must also be made about Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s EU Minister and chief negotiator in the accession talks. There is consensus among the EU ambassadors I am in touch with that he is not a positive force in Turkish-EU ties at this stage, but a negative one, given his brash attitude that often reflects anti-EU and anti-European sentiments. It is an open question as to how productive a minister who has zero credibility with his official interlocutors can be in advancing the file he is in charge of.

Other than that, though, it appears business as usual in Turkish-EU ties, which have not been marked by any major advances over these past few years, but which have nevertheless muddled through one crisis after another, with neither side having the courage to sever these ties given the problems this would create in terms of the “big picture.”