EU and Turkey reluctant to end entry talks

Sunday 07/05/2017
Uneasy talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) talks with High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini before a meeting with EU foreign ministers in Valletta in Malta, last April. (Reuters)

London - Even though Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdog­an has accused European leaders of behaving like Nazis and the European Union has effectively frozen Tur­key’s membership negotiations, nei­ther side wants to be the first to end Ankara’s decades-old bid to join the bloc.

Ever since the European Union formally recognised Turkey as a candidate to join the expanding group of countries in 1999, there has been a pretence on both sides, diplomats said: Turkey pretended it wanted to join and the European Union pretended it wanted to have Turkey as a member.

The European Union aimed to bind Turkey to its values enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria for mem­bership; adherence to democracy and respect for human rights within a fully functioning market economy.

Turkey hoped for better access to lucrative EU markets, economic growth and prosperity. Turkish companies have thrived under the EU customs union Turkey joined in 1995, helping propel it to become the world’s 17th biggest economy.

Erdogan’s Justice and Develop­ment Party (AKP), which emerged from a string of banned Islamist parties to come to power in 2002, also saw value in a number of EU demands, not least its insistence on civilian control over the military. Turkey’s secularist generals had car­ried out three coups since 1960 and toppled the country’s first Islamist-led government in 1997.

Then a rising star within Turkey’s growing Islamist movement and mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and economic hub, Erdogan set out his views on democracy. “Ac­cording to us, democracy can never be an aim, democracy is a vehicle,” he said in a 1997 speech. A year later, he told an interviewer: “Democracy is a tram. Once we reach our destina­tion, we get off.”

Turkish opposition leaders argue that Erdogan has remained true to his words after a narrow victory in an April 16 referendum giving the presidency wide-ranging executive powers and weakening parliamen­tary oversight. If he wins the next presidential election in 2019, Erdog­an could rule almost outright when all the changes go into effect.

The European Parliament’s rap­porteur on Turkey Kati Piri called for Ankara’s bid to join the union to be suspended.

April 16, she said, was “a sad day for all democrats because it is clear that, with such a constitution, Tur­key cannot become a member of the EU… the EU should officially suspend the accession process if the constitutional changes are imple­mented unchanged.”

Ankara’s accession efforts should not be scrapped for good and Turkey should remain a candidate country as an “anchor for reforms,” Piri said.

“In Turkey, changes are possible in the future and I continue to be­lieve in a joint future for Turkey and the EU but I am also realistic and acknowledge that this is unlikely to happen under the current political leadership in Turkey,” she told the European Parliament.

Her words provoked an angry re­sponse from Erdogan, who said the European Union had to open talks on the chapters — policy areas — in which candidate countries must comply to join the bloc. Since the EU accession process began in 2005, talks on 16 of the 35 chapters have been opened but have concluded on just one.

“There is no option other than opening chapters that you have not opened until now,” Erdogan said. “If you open, then great. If you don’t open, then goodbye.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini clarified the union’s posi­tion on Turkey’s accession process. “It is not suspended, nor ended but, as you might know, we are currently not working on opening any new ne­gotiation chapter,” she said at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Malta at the end of April.

That, in effect, means that Tur­key’s EU bid is frozen but not dead. EU countries are reluctant to fully end the accession process fearing Erdogan might carry out his threat to abandon a deal to stop the 3 mil­lion Syrian refugees in Turkey from heading to Europe.

“How can we ignore Turkey? We have to fight terrorism; we want Turkey to respect the migration deal we have,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in Malta. “Nobody wants a break-up with Tur­key. It is up to them to say what they want.”

Erdogan repeated his threat to have a referendum on whether to pursue Turkey’s EU bid but has stopped short of taking steps to bring it about or pulling out of the process without a national vote, which he and his majority in parlia­ment have the power to do.

That would endanger Turkey’s profitable customs union with the Euroepean Union. Apart from An­dorra and San Marino, Turkey is the only non-member country to have a customs union with the European Union.

Dismissing Austrian calls for for­mally suspending Turkey’s acces­sion talks right away, German For­eign Minister Sigmar Gabriel held out the possibility of enhancing the customs union with Turkey.

“It does not improve things by cancelling something before we have something new to offer,” Gabri­el said in Malta. “We can try to open new channels for negotiations.”