Any chance to reset Turkish-EU ties?
The European Union Commission has begun a new term under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman holding the EU’s top job. Her closest company is Charles Michel, president of the EU Council, and both have already worked closely with Turkish officials in their previous positions.
In her first statement on Turkey on Dec. 4, Leyen said she held a phone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Dec. 1 in which she stressed that the commission was preparing to hold “honest conversations” with Ankara.
In line with these preparations, a senior delegation from the commission paid a visit to Turkey on Dec. 6 to hold talks mainly on migration issues. Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, in charge of promoting the European way of life, and Ylva Johansson, a commissioner of home affairs, met the highest-ranking officials in Ankara, including President Erdoğan and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.
Under normal conditions, one would expect the dispatch of EU’s neighborhood and enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, for the first visit to a candidate country to discuss the state of accession talks. But as the full membership negotiations with Turkey have long been stalled, bilateral talks have been confined to transactional issues, including security, migration and so on.
It’s, therefore, not surprising that the first visit is devoted to migration issues, particularly after President Erdoğan repeatedly threatened the Europeans with opening the gates for the Syrian refugees’ influx into Europe. In addition, as one of the top issues, the new commission will be preoccupied with migration issues, as earlier suggested by President Leyen. Continued conversation with Turkey based on a March 2016 refugee deal will establish the main pillar of bilateral engagement.
Unavoidably, one wonders about the future of political ties between Ankara and Brussels and whether the stalled accession talks could be revitalized in the coming period under the new EU Commission. This uncertainty also includes the fate of talks on a visa waiver for Turkish citizens and the updating of the Customs Union.
Having a new brass leading the key EU institutions is surely an important development, but the main parameters have not changed. These parameters mainly correspond to what Turkey should do in terms of fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria.
Turkey has concluded a chain of elections in June 2019, and there were hopes that the government would launch a new period for undertaking necessary reforms and rehabilitating the wounded democratic climate in the country. The only step was taken through a judicial reform package, but the implementation process has proven that it was far from having a real effect in terms of the freedom of expression.
In a general sense, there seems to be no improvement in the fields of democracy, human rights and rule of law with continued restrictions on the use of constitutional rights of assembly and freedom of expression.
To make the picture worse, the dismissal of elected mayors of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the appointment of governors instead of them have inflicted another heavy blow on Turkey’s democracy and image abroad. The continued imprisonment of HDP’s former leader Selahattin Demirtaş and civil society activist and businessman Osman Kavala, among other dissidents, are seen as symbolic cases of ailing Turkish democracy.
It’s true that not many countries in the EU are eager for revitalizing the accession process with Turkey due to political reasons, and many of them are relieved to observe that the current state of democracy makes any sort of reconciliation almost impossible. This adds yet another psychological and political obstacle before establishing a sound dialogue between the two parties.
This makes clear that today’s conditions won’t pledge any chance for a reset on Turkey-EU ties unless the Turkish government opts for a fresh, genuine, radical and effective reform process under what it had used to call Ankara Criteria.