Whither now? Turkey and the future of the EU project

Jonathan Boyd
Whither now? Turkey and the future of the EU project

Having long been a strong supporter of Turkey’s EU accession bid, it truly pains me now to see the poor state of Turkey-EU relations, with Turkish and European politicians exchanging insults now on an almost daily basis. All seem to be using the parlous state of Turkey’s EU accession bid for their own domestic political advantage. This seems to be far from the European spirit.

I supported Turkey’s EU accession bid as I truly believed that having a majority, and economically successful, Muslim state, Turkey, in the EU would be the best riposte to events on 9/11, and since, and all those arguing the case for the clash of civilisations.

I also thought that, as proved the case with the former Communist states in Eastern Europe, the drive for EU accession would be a great anchor for reform and positive change in Turkey – revamping the economy, and cementing democracy and European rights and values in the process.

But it is clear I guess to even those like me that believed in Turkey’s place in Europe and the European Union, that Turkey’s EU accession bid is now in serious trouble and indeed the whole project is at risk of failure.

It would be naïve not to recognise the changing mood in Europe, and indeed globally, with the rise of nationalism, populism, and a nation-first agenda now being the new order of the day, in parallel to a growing aversion to globalisation, immigration and the free movement of labour. Mass immigration is straining the political and social fabric of Europe, and exposing fissures which were perhaps never that far from the surface in reality if we chose to look. Tensions have been further exposed by a decade of economic flux which followed the global financial crisis in 2008. Intolerance is on the rise, and politicians are defensive on issues such as immigration, and all too often happy to hide behind cheap sound bites rather than try and find more complex and difficult policy solutions.

A likely casualty of the above trend is the EU enlargement process itself, further across Emerging Europe, and not only to Turkey. In reality, herein, it will likely be difficult to secure ratification across EU-27 – as likely will then be the case – for further enlargement to the likes of Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and BiH, and then Turkey. Any future new aspiring EU members are likely to face a repeat of the referendum vote in the Netherlands over the AA/DCFTA with Ukraine, which ended in a defeat, even though there was no implicit or explicit nod to Ukraine’s eventual EU membership. True the Netherlands’ political elites secured something of a “fix” herein to get the Ukraine AA/DCFTA over the line, but I doubt that similar options would be possible when it comes to the ratification process for future new EU entrants – a much bigger deal all around. Getting future waves of enlargement over the line will be acutely difficult, and especially likely with respect to Turkey.

So the reality is that Turkey faces a much more hostile and fractured political environment in Europe, with higher hurdles likely presented to its own EU accession bid, but more generally towards the entire EU enlargement project.

Long-standing opponents to Turkish EU accession are quick now to pin the blame for strains in the EU-Turkey relationship, and Turkey’s weakening case for EU membership, on faults at home in Turkey – in particular, the erosion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, since at least 2013, and the onset of the Gezi Park protests, then in the purges which followed the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, and more recently Erdogan’s move to concentrate power around an Executive Presidency, as affirmed in his referendum win in April 2017.

It is difficult to argue against the deterioration in political trends in Turkey, at least since 2013 – with increased geopolitical tensions across Turkey’s borders, and increased polarisation at home. But to be fair to Turkey, since at least 2010, it has faced very mixed messages from Europe itself, which perhaps played a part in weakening the EU reform anchor at home in Turkey. Herein I would highlight focus from chancellor Merkel in Germany and former French president Sarkozy from around 2010 onwards to offering Turkey a “privileged partnership”, which appeared to all as some kind of second class EU membership to Turkey, which, in actuality it was. Indeed, from this time, Turkey began to feel, and argue (with some justification in my view), that the EU was not really serious about Turkey’s EU accession bid, and that whatever reforms towards the EU goal Turkey rolled out, eventually once it met EU standards/norms, that its membership would be vetoed, by France, Germany, Austria, et al. And, as a result, since around 2010 and the time the idea of the privileged partnership was hatched and promoted, opinion polls suggested a moderating in enthusiasm at home in Turkey for EU accession. This also coincided – I think it was driven by the cooling relationship with Europe – with a move by the Erdogan administration to diversifying trade and investment relations, into the Middle East, Russia/CIS and into Africa – there was a definitive move/switch away from Europe. It might also be argued that around this time, the EU-related reform zeal also began to moderate – at least after the 2011 elections in Turkey, but then accelerated around/after the Gezi Park protests.

Western reaction to the Gezi protests, and then also the failed coup attempt, accentuated the Erdogan administration’s break from Europe, and with it EU-oriented reforms. I think there was a sense that the EU was a one-way stream of criticism, not willing to understand the Turkish context (e.g. around the failed coup) and for little benefit – especially if the EU was not serious about eventually green-lighting EU membership for Turkey.

urkey had to lay itself open to intrusive scrutiny from the EU – annual and typically critical EU accession progress reports – which laid the problems bare, but for little benefit for the Erdogan administration. Indeed, arguably these just served to damage its political standing at home, especially where failings on human rights, rule of law, democratic standards, a free press, etc, were highlighted and in some detail. The Erdogan administration begin to ask itself, what exactly are the benefits from the EU accession drive – especially where foreign investment into Turkey was increasingly becoming decoupled from that very same agenda. On the latter point what was noticeable from 2010 to perhaps 2013/14 is that the weakening of the EU accession bid seemed to have little impact on foreign investment flows – an increasingly common riposte from foreign investors was that they invested in Turkey, on the good stand-alone Turkish economic growth story, not just/particularly on the EU accession anchor. I think the Erdogan administration also took this on board, assuming that the strong standalone Turkish economic story, could weather disengagement with the EU.

I would argue that the weakening in commitment to Turkish EU accession – first from Germany/France (Austria, et al) and then reciprocally by Turkey, meant the EU reform anchor weakened, and this accentuated the drift by Turkey away from European norms/values, et al. From the economic policy perspective I think it is fair to say that we saw a general deterioration in the reform agenda some-time in the AKP’s third term in office (2011 – 2015) but centred around the Gezi Park protests in 2013. In the end, in a circular route this has ended up damaging the investment environment and inward investment as a result over the past 2-3 years at least.

More on