Why is no one excited about the resumption of negotiations?

Why is no one excited about the resumption of negotiations?

With the opening of Chapter 22, Turkey and the European Union have resumed the negotiation process on the accession of Turkey to the EU after an interruption of almost three-and-a-half years. This announcement comes at a time when public support for negotiations is lower than ever. Nevertheless, the lack of elite support poses an even greater risk.

Although the figures vary from one survey to another, moderate estimates show that currently fewer than 40 percent of Turkish people believe that it would be a good thing if Turkey joined the EU. In other words, the support for accession has diminished by half since the beginning of negotiations. On the other hand, support among European citizens is as low as always; only 20 percent are in favor of the accession. If one thing that the various surveys fully agree upon, it is the fact that the support behind the negotiations points to a clear downtrend. 

This trend did not seem to trouble the minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bağış, and the EU enlargement commissioner, Stefan Füle, representatives of both sides, when they announced the resumption of negotiations on Nov. 5. They probably know the history of European integration too well to be bothered about the lack of popular support.

The relationship between the EU and the citizens of the union has hardly been an intimate one so far. European integration started as a project of politicians and civil servants rather than the peoples of Europe. The history of European integration betrays a similar pattern throughout. It includes processes that have been developed far from and sometimes in spite of the people. This way of development eases the formulation and implementation of policies but comes at a cost of alienating the public from the whole process. As a result, European citizens have difficulties in identifying themselves with the process of European integration. This inevitably opens a gap between the union and its citizens.
This gap becomes rather unmistakable at the times of direct voting by citizens. The EU has failed to find acceptance for elite-led political developments through referenda several times in the past.
However, the leaders of the EU are known for not taking no as an answer. As long as they believe in a project, they will find a way around the lack of public support, such as repeating referenda or changing the approval process altogether, as evident from the case of the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty.

Therefore, the lack of popular support or the “threat” from some member states to put the issue to a referendum even if the negotiation process ends successfully is not the main obstacle on the way to Turkey’s future in the EU. Rather, the question is whether the political leaders of both sides believe in the matter.

Obviously, it is not down to Mr. Bağış and Mr. Füle alone, but to a much wider group of political leaders. To a certain extent, irrespective of what their voters think, the way this group perceives Turkey-EU relations will affect the rest of the course of the negotiations as well as the final outcome.
Unfortunately, there is no similar data available on the level of support among the political elites for the Turkey to join the union. Still, there are all the signs in the political discourse that the figure among the political elites with regards to the support for negotiations is similar to the one mentioned above. 
Discourses of reluctance, mistrust, and blind opposition from both sides have increasingly been gaining ground within the political discussion on Turkey’s accession to the EU. The fact that the negotiations had been halted for over three years has unsurprisingly worsened the situation. It will take a lot of hard work to reverse this particular drift, which is more important than the opening or closing of any negotiation chapter, if only it can ever be achieved.

Otherwise, as things stand, there is very little to be excited about the opening of a chapter.

Resul Ümit is a PhD fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna.