20 September 2019

European Union-Turkey, after 20 years of failed accession negotiations

Cristian Eremia

Turkey has tried to access EU for quite some time, but this country’s relations with EU have turned out to be extremely complicated during time, reaching a point wherein its accession to EU can no longer be considered. Their bilateral relations with states such as Germany, Holland or France were seriously weekend by Ankara’s behavior, hereof they have firmly criticized president Erdogan’s political course or even blocked the accession negotiations many times.

Image source: Mediafax

The European Parliament (EP) has also recommended negotiations’ suspension, due to Turkish president’s authoritarian regime, which is violating the European democratic standards and the rule of law. The EP hopes that this firm political stance will make Turkey aware that the policies it is promoting is pushing the limits, hence they cannot be understood, nor accepted by EU. Therefore, step by step, the internal political evolutions, mostly emerged due to last years[1]’ authoritarian and repressive measures of the Turkish president have compromised the new Brussels-Ankara relation.

Historical and geostrategic perspectives for Turkey’s accession to EU

The EU-Turkey negotiation process went through more than 20 years of official irrelevant debates. Turkey has formally asked to access EU in 1987, but the bad relations it had with Brussels has pushed EU to postpone the official recognition of its candidate country status until 1999, when they have also started the endless negotiations. As mentioned before, the European Parliament has voted, in March, to cancel the negotiations and, consequently, to suspend Turkey’s accession to EU. Hence, the Western European leaders are firmly opposed to Turkey’s accession to EU. The EP has pragmatically and implicitly concluded that the accession process has failed, as the negotiations, given the circumstance, are just a waste of time.

Turkey’s historical and geostrategic significance has formally received, for the first time, an economic dimension on its relation with Europe, after signing the 1963 Ankara Agreement, a historical moment that made Turkey start its adaptation to the Western market economy. The Custom Union with EU, from 1995, could have been an extremely advantageous economic cooperation format for them but, unfortunately, due to the Turkish policies’ dynamic and the reactive stance of the foreign factors coordinating Turkey’s accession process to EU, it could not strengthen the relation with EU.

The illegal migration management has imposed another dimension over the EU-Turkey relation. The unpreceded migration crisis from the Mediterranean forced EU to sign and extremely controversial agreement with Ankara, at the beginning of 2016, as temporary solution to stop migration[2]. Concurrently, EU had to reopen the negotiation chapter regarding finances, but also to start the visa liberation process for the Turkish citizens.

Turkey is also a big Muslim state, and its fully-fledged member status would offer it, within the Union, a power as big as other Western powers, such as France, Germany or Italy. It would open and extremely complex problem for the Western powers, which would have to give Turkey the right to vote on strategic decisions regarding EU’s present and future, despite the huge religion or national state ideologies’ differences. This is an important detail, additional to many others, all creating serious rejection reactions for Turkey’s candidacy, among the member states.

On one hand, Turkey’s EU policy supporters are stating that this state has a geostrategic position that they recommend as a possible buffer allied state of the Europeans in relation to the Islamic world, and Turkey’s offices to intermediate the dialogue with the unstable Muslim neighborhood at Union’s periphery should also be considered. This would also reduce EU’s costs, needed to support the stability and security vulnerabilities’ decrease on this strategic direction. In fact, Ankara has the second biggest army in NATO, after US, it has strong security and defence institutions and it would create a firm barrier against any aggression and any migration wave.

On the other hand, the European conservatory and circumspect political wing is warning that once receiving Turkey, EU would “buy” this country’s set of serious security and political problems. They say so because EU would have to have Ankara’s back, as member state, in each of the regional conflicts that Turkey is involved in. Therefore, the Union would lose its valuable freedom ranks, including the management of crisis and peace implementation power. And such kind of conflicts are not predictable at all (like, for example, a possible conflict source is the Kurdish issue, or the reconciliation with Armenia on the unrecognized genocide, the obstructionist policies on Cyprus etc.). In fact, lately, Turkey had other foreign priorities too, additional to the relation with EU, which has also reduced Union’s options on this file.

Populist movements’ increase in the European geopolitical space and the increasing hostility against the Islamic world, due to the issues the big migration wave brought, were simply overlapping with Turkey’s European path’s deviation, which compromised Turkey’s accession to EU.

Cancelling the negotiations is, in fact, a way of avoiding relations’ definitive breach

In all these 20 years since the European Council (EC) gave Turkey the candidate state status, EU could only open 16 of the 33 negotiations chapters[3]. The only “performance” is the temporary closure of one chapter, the one related to science and research. EU is seeing only failures in the past three years, however, “diplomatically” expressed as “the negotiations are in a deadlock”. It is noteworthy that EU had significantly adjusted accession process’s funding, two years ago, through a cut and reorient accession funds. It was the normal step following the freeze policy of opening new negotiation chapters, but not actually closing the accession process, which cannot bother Ankara or definitively break the relations with Turkey.

However, the European Commission has elaborated, this summer, the Report[4] on Turkey’s negotiations phase, which mentioned – if anyone was still doubting it-that “under the currently prevailing circumstances, Turkey’s accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill, no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing and no further work towards the modernisation of the Customs Union can be currently foreseen”. The EU institutions are underlining that the repeated commitments of the Turkish government did not come along with the measures and reforms the Union asked.

Brussels is also concerned with Turkey’s negative evolutions in terms of the rule of law, the judicial system’s functioning and the fundamental rights observance. Turkey is still at the beginning of its fight against corruption, due to the lack of political will. It has announced a justice reform for the 2019-2023 period, but they did not adopt it yet. It has a certain training level for the fight against organized crime, but also limited. The Turkish state could not improve its legislation in terms of the intelligence frauds and witnesses’ protection. The legislation on state procurement, including the special ones, is still not matching EU’s acquis yet.

Economically speaking, the macro-economic parameters and performances have deteriorated. There is no systematic approach in terms of reforms. Turkey’s democratic drawdown and its bad image within EU have seriously affected the business environment and it is pushing away all direct European investments. Besides the economic-commercial cooperation (more than half of the Turkish exports’ volume are made with the Union), Brussels is also interested in keeping the 2016 Agreement on Refugees, a treaty whereby Turkey committed to stop the illegal migrants’ number towards Europe, in return of European financial assistance assurances and other promises, such as visa regime liberation regime. Things got complicated here also, as Ankara stated that EU did not accomplished the financial assistance program, periodically threatening to cancel the agreement.

As for the electoral processes, EU has serious concerns on their integrity and legality, as well as the real independence of the involved institutions, which are, in fact, subjected to power’s political pressures. The political polarization at the local elections (it was mentioned the Istanbul case, from March 2019) continues to block a constructive parliamentary dialogue. Opposition’s marginalization, especially the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is made through forces, as many of the HDP members are already in prison. President’s executive and legislative prerogatives have increased a lot within the constitutional architecture of the new presidential system, reshaping the state administration and executive through presidential decrees. Turkey did not consider the previous European recommendations regarding the state administration reform.

The irony is that more than one third of the 4, 45 billion Euro planed by Brussels, in the 2014-2020 exercise, for Turkey, was dedicated to “democracy and governance” fields, “civil society’s fortification” and the “rule of law and fundamental rights”, which are the exact fields that are now stopping the accession negotiations.

Lacking of any progress- because of Ankara, EU thinks it has the right to seriously consider that the internal political reality shows that Turkey has no intention or determination to access EU. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has firmly stated that “Turkey should not become an EU member”, and president Emmanuel Macron got to the same conclusion saying that it should rather receive the special partner status, than the member state one.

Security and defence chapter

As for the defence and security chapter, Turkey is still, generally, and EU partner, officially accepting, within NATO, the NATO-EU cooperation complementarity in the field. Ankara’s relation with the European security and defence pillar is strictly relying on its NATO member status, the allied attribute prevailing over the European security and defence businesses. Businesses the Turkish states is extremely superficial about.

Ankara is also sensitive to the NATO-EU cooperation issue, which exceeds the “Berlin plus” provisions that involve all EU member states. This issue cannot be solved, as its stance became inflexible due to a possible unconditioned accession. Therefore, Ankara prefers the status of NATO’s international actor in terms of European security and defence. Lately, it is even blocking punctual military cooperations with some EU allied states, wherewith it is fighting in terms of foreign policies, like Austria or Cyprus. However, when it comes to the cooperation with EU for anti-terrorism actions, Ankara shares the same interests against the serious threats provoked by violent extremism and international terrorism.

This is why the Turkish side has joined the consolidated cooperative framework offered by the European security and intelligence governmental agencies.

Hereof, Turkey is only partially and selectively agreeing with elements from the institutional framework, which is allowing its participation to the Common Security and Foreign Policy and the Defence and Security Policy. It promised to support EU’s Global Strategy objectives, even if, in the last year, it only has an 18% alignment rate to EC’s relevant decisions and statements it was invited to be part of. Turkey continues to be active in management of crises military operations within the Security and Defence Policy, especially the EUFOR ALTHEA, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it has particular political interests. It asked to be again part of EU’s missions in Ukraine and Kosovo, which were cancelled after the 2016 coup d’état attempt.

What’s next?

The Western political an analytical circles think that by underestimating the European liberal and democratic imperatives, Ankara’s leadership it not only ignoring its European political options, proclaimed back in the 2000-2005, the “golden years” of the EU-Turkey dialogue’s development, but it is only going in the totally opposite direction. This is all the more concerning given that the Turkish economy has definitely no chances of being relaunched without the Western technology and investments or without EU’s generous market’s participation.

The Turkish involutions are higher and higher, revealing Ankara’s more and more unbalanced strategic bipolarity, favoring an alignment with Russia, in the detriment of the relations with EU. And there is also the deterioration of the US-Turkey relations. Given that the military institutions’ influence on the political path Turkey has chosen was dramatically eliminated, only time will show us which is the final reaction of the Turkish citizens in terms of the distance from the West in general, and EU and US in particular.

Anyhow, EU has constantly warned that it does not want to only stay at this dialogue phase in the relation with Turkey and that it will not push Turkey away from the Western European space. EC stated that “We want to keep the door opened for Ankara, but the current situation in Turkey makes it difficult”, which can also mean that the “ball” is on Ankara’s policy makers’ court. In fact, they should keep this relation deterioration in acceptable limits.

The deterioration of Turkey’s rule of law architecture is so serious that it became an insuperable issue for EU and its enlargement and neighborhood policy. Hence, Turkey, alike any other country which is in the same situation, cannot access EU. This is the moment when questions are emerging within the Western European political circles, the most important being related to how can the EU accession negotiations could restart. And the answers are about to be found in Western powers’ approaches, in the future, in relation with Erdogan’s policies. Therefore, it would be great for EU’s leaders’ reunions to include also a debate on EU’s political options in terms of Turkey and also to send some firm messages to Ankara.

European estimations are showing that Ankara only wants for the commercial-economic cooperation to get better with EU, and not the accession process or the visa regime. And this does not mean that the Turkish state has any intention to get back to authentic democracy or (re)conciliation with the Western powers. In other words, the Erdogan regime is not willing to follow Brussels’ conditions, conditions that EU is not ready to separate from restarting the multi-dimension cooperation. Therefore, we can hardly imagine an immediate and consistent progress in the EU-Turkey relation. Consequently, the EU cooperation with Turkey will stop at a commercial phase and the above mentioned security files. We can also witness some adjustments regarding the EU-Turkey Custom Union and the 2016 refugees Agreement. On a political-diplomatic plan, they will certainly continue to communicate and will maintain some leverages to be used whenever necessary. In the end, contemporary history’s evolutions have already proved the strategic importance of the EU-Turkey relations.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] In 2018, the European Commission was mentioning that when the emergency condition started, in 2016, after the failed coup d’état, there were arrested around 78.000 people in Turkey and 150.000 of them were detained. The regime introduced press’s censorship and have seriously affected the freedom of action and expression of journalists. After strengthening the presidential powers, they have also reintroduced the death punishment, which did not, however, come into force until now. These things made the president of the European Commission at that time, Jean-Claude Juncker, to state that reintroducing the death punishment would mean the end of Turkey’s accession negotiations to EU.

[2] Turkey made a lot of progresses to host the 3,6 million refugees coming from Syria and the 370.000 refugees from other countries- which is also the biggest refugee community in the world. Turkey and EU have continued to consolidate the cooperation within the Refugee Facility from Turkey. Until May 2019, of all 6 billion Euro mobilized by EU, there were launched more than 80 projects and reimbursed more than 2,3 billion euro.

[3] Union’s acquis is, actually, a legislative package adopted by all EU countries, which must also be followed by the new countries that wants to enter EU. The negotiations is developed on 33 chapters, as this is also the number of legislation’s fields. After recognizing one country’s candidate status, the European Commission recommends opening individual chapters. In the end, when that country accomplished the required commitments of a chapter, they would temporarily close that chapter.

[4] On 18th of June, the General Businesses Council has adopted a report with the conclusions on enlargement, stabilization and the association process, which covered Turkey. On 20th of June 2019, the European Council has approved those conclusions, indeed similar with European Commission’s Report from May 20, 2019.