Scrapping Turkey’s EU accession talks now will only make things worse

Scrapping Turkey’s EU accession talks now will only make things worse

Laura Batalla Adam
Scrapping Turkey’s EU accession talks now will only make things worse

Greens and Socialists Member hold papers saying ‘YES’ during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 15 December 2004 after the vote on Turkey.

In December 2004, the European Parliament backed Turkey’s bid to open accession negotiations with the European Union. The decision, by 407 votes to 262 with 29 abstentions, sent a strong but non-binding message to the then 25 EU heads of government, who were expected to open accession negotiations with Turkey.
Twelve years later, the same parliament is due to vote on a resolution, again non-binding, requesting a temporary freeze of accession negotiations with Turkey, ongoing since 2005. Contrary to what one might think, the resolution has not been proposed by anti-Turkish parties, but by political groups once supporting Turkey’s membership of the European Union, now alarmed by Ankara’s seemingly unstoppable backsliding from democracy and EU values. If to this we add the fact that accession negotiations have not moved an inch in the past decade, this results in increasing calls for an alternative relationship to full EU membership. 

In 1959 Turkey applied for membership of the then European Economic Community. Formal accession negotiations started only 46 years later. So far Turkey’s journey toward joining the EU is the longest ever when compared to all the other candidate countries. Tired of waiting at Europe’s door for more than half a century, Turkey has fallen into despair. Now the door seems to be closing forever. 

Only a year after membership talks started, the European Council blocked eight out of the 35 chapters necessary to complete the accession process, as a result of Turkey’s refusal to apply the Additional Protocol of the Ankara Association Agreement (signed in 1963) to Cyprus, a country that Turkey does not recognize. In 2009, France blocked four more chapters (the veto over three chapters has been lifted, the remaining one on Agriculture and Rural Development is simultaneously frozen by the European Council) and Cyprus another six, including chapters 23 and 24, which would contribute substantially to the renewal of Ankara’s commitment to reforms in the areas of fundamental rights and freedoms. To date, only 15 chapters have been opened and just one has been provisionally closed. 

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in the general elections of 2002, the EU reacted positively as it considered it an opportunity to demonstrate that Islam is compatible with Europe and its values. While the AKP undertook unprecedented democratic reforms for accession negotiations to be opened, the trend began to reverse as the party consolidated its power through successive elections.

 The EU, on its side, missed the growing signs forestalling Turkey’s authoritarian drift and failed to support democratic forces in the country. This, combined with the people’s belief that Turkey would probably never become a member of the EU even if all the criteria were fulfilled, has resulted in a dramatic decrease in support for EU membership within Turkish society. 

The suspension of talks, albeit only temporarily, will only worsen an already battered relationship. Quite the opposite: More and real engagement is needed, not less. The opening of chapters should not have been the exception but the norm. By opening chapters, the EU will not reward the Turkish government but it will force it to comply with EU rules. 

The EU-Turkey deal on migration reached in March this year was expected to reinvigorate stalled membership talks. Despite talks being opened on two chapters (17 and 33), the EU’s soft power has been much weakened and hence it has lost the transformative influence it once had. What is even worse, the said agreement has created a dysfunctional relationship in which Turkey holds the upper hand. 

The deal has laid the foundation for a transactional relationship, instead of one based on values. By having outsourced the humanitarian migration crisis to Turkey and turned a blind eye to Turkey’s democratic regression, the EU has betrayed its own principles and values.

Meanwhile, the EU has been mired in a political and identity crisis, long before Brexit happened. Next year, three out of the six founding countries of the European integration project – namely France, Germany and The Netherlands - will hold crucial elections. The future of the EU - i.e. further European integration or disintegration - could be determined by the election results. EU’s relationship with Turkey is very likely to feature in the campaigns and used by populist parties as an electoral weapon to garner votes, as was the case in the pro-Brexit campaign. Hence, the need to save the EU’s credibility, for making deals with uncomfortable partners, before it is too late.

While oppression in Turkey has reached unprecedented levels, cutting ties with Ankara now, when Turkey’s democracy is crumbling, would be a terrible mistake, not easily forgiven by the fewer and fewer EU supporters in Turkey. An unattainable goal at present, membership will only happen when all proper democratic safeguards are met and political will across the EU permits. However, without the EU’s guardianship, democracy in Turkey is likely to further backslide. 

The suspension card could not have come at a worse moment for the ongoing efforts to reunify Cyprus, which have reached an impasse this week. Resolving the Cyprus problem would be a rare diplomatic achievement in decades that, in turn, could unblock a number of chapters critically important for Turkey’s tarnished democratic credentials. 

Given the very significant challenges (migration, counterterrorism and security) and interests the European Union and Turkey share (in the field of trade and energy), neither side can afford to turn its back and walk away. Yet a relationship without honesty, trust and shared commitment is doomed to fail. 

This is a critical moment for the destinies of both the EU and Turkey. They can walk together or agree a mutual parting of the ways. However, unless Turkey changes its course of action, the EU’s door will remain closed.

Friends of Turkey is an informal friendship group composed of 60 members of the European Parliament coming from different political families. The group serves as platform for open debate between European and Turkish officials, political decision-makers, experts and civil society actors.
*Laura Batalla Adam is Secretary General of the Friends of Turkey group in the European Parliament. The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the Friends of Turkey group or its members.