Turkey and the EU reveal their need for each other
In his address to parliament on Oct. 1, during the ceremony to mark the new legislative year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeated yet again that Turkey was not dependent on its EU membership perspective anymore, especially at a time when, as he claimed, Europe is supporting anti-Turkish terrorism.
However, he nevertheless emphasized – again - that Turkey would not be the one to throw in the towel and end its membership bid, challenging Europe to do this itself. Given the rule of unanimity necessary for such decisions, the EU is clearly not in a positon to do this, as it has members who oppose alienating Ankara on strategic grounds (regardless of what is happening in Turkey and how much they may dislike Erdoğan).
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, for his part, is on record on countless occasions saying he is against ending membership talks, even though he does not see progress in them until Ankara mends its undemocratic ways.
Given that undemocratic practices have peaked in Turkey, with little prospect of improvement any time soon, the EU should have technically suspended these talks some time ago, but it has not.
Meanwhile, given Erdoğan’s confident attitude against the EU, it is Ankara - which sees clearly now that EU membership is a pipedream under prevailing circumstances - that should have ended these talks. It has not, though, even if this would have been a popular move for Erdoğan’s support base.
Even Germany’s openly declared opposition to Turkey’s membership appears unconvincing. Berlin says it will work to end these talks in agreement with other members, even though it knows it will not secure a consensus. What it is not doing is threatening to unilaterally veto the membership talks, which it could do if it wanted to.
It is like a contest to see who blinks first. But developments are proving that neither side is willing to go for an ultimate severance in Turkish-EU ties - and the reason is not difficult to fathom.
No matter what they may say publically, both sides still need each other in view of international volatility and uncertainty, especially in the Middle East.
Turkey is also aware that the anchor that its EU perspective represents, especially with regard to economic stability, is not something it can ditch in a moment of anger. The bottom line is that without its EU perspective Turkey will be like a ship that has lost its rudder in turbulent waters.
The interaction between Turkey and Europe goes back centuries. For example, it was strategic interests which forced the Franco-Ottoman alliance in 1536, and which also pushed Protestant powers to interact with the Ottoman Empire against their Catholic enemies in Europe as the situation required.
Today’s strategic equation in the world is far more complicated than it was back then, and it is clear that neither side is prepared to take on unnecessary risks, despite their angry and mostly populist pronouncements against each other.
Of course, it remains unclear just how far this can go. All the indications are that it can continue for a long time if the international environment requires it to do so. That does not mean an end to the acrimony or the threats, and even to unilateral steps as in the case of Germany, which have more to do with bilateral ties, rather than Turkey’s ties with the EU.
Put another way, Turkey-EU ties – despite appearing to have hit rock bottom - are nevertheless set to continue for reasons that have little to do with public sentiment on either side.
These ties also have little to do with promoting democratic and humanistic values in Turkey anymore. The fact that neither side can afford to end them, despite anti-democratic developments in Turkey, proves that there is more to these ties than the public is led to believe.
Erdoğan knows this and is challenging Europe to suspend Ankara’s membership bid, which it cannot do, no doubt to the annoyance of the far right across the continent. This is part of what makes him a successful populist leader, who Europe will have to deal with one way or another.