MESOP ANALYSIS : Turkey and the EU: What Next?

By Diba Nigar Göksel – GERMAN MARSHALL FUND  – December 5, 2012

Summary: Current debates suggest that there are two relatively positive scenarios for Turkey-EU relations. One is for Turkey to be a member of a more flexible, multi-layered EU; the other is that Turkey be a democratic partner deeply integrated with the EU and allied in spreading positive values and governance standards in the neighborhood. At this time, there are some steps that would need to be taken to increase the likelihood of either of these positive scenarios. Even those with contrary views about the endgame should rally around the win-win formulas outlined in this brief.


 Current debates suggest that there are two positive scenarios for Turkey-EU relations. One is for Turkey to be a member of a more flexible, multilayered EU; the other is that Turkey be a democratic partner deeply integrated with the EU and allied in spreading positive values and governance standards in the neighborhood. Both optimistic end-results require steps in the same direction: overcoming mutual prejudices — which have concrete implications for related political stances — supporting Turkey’s pro-democracy civil society, visa free travel, and integration in neighborhood initiatives. Such steps can prepare the ground for accession to continue more seamlessly down the line if and when the formal blockages are lifted. Either way, they will still enable a healthier domestic environment in Turkey and will capitalize on positive synergies in the neighborhood. These win-win formulas can and should be rallied around by even those who have different views about the end-game. On the other side, the paradigm of setting dates for Turkey’s accession, propounded by the Turkish prime minister in October who said the EU would lose Turkey if member-ship had not been granted by 2023, may no longer be expedient.

Marked Regression Since 2004, Turkey has watched the challenges to its accession get steeper just when it most expected to move forward. The accession of Cyprus has stalled Turkey’s membership indefinitely. Lessons learned from past enlargements have led the EU to impose stricter conditions for all candidates. Some EU members have declared they will hold a referendum to approve future enlargement. The leaders of Germany and France from 2005 and 2007 onwards, respectively, were vocally against Turkey’s membership. Paris went so far as to block the opening of five chapters, for political reasons. The economic crisis has aggravated populist approaches to “cultural diversity” across the EU. A tone of regret dominates the assessment of EU member state representatives when they are reminded of the unanimous vote of EU member states to offer Turkey candidate status in 1999 and to start membership negotiations in 2005. The EU is widely perceived in Turkey as having made false promises and then tossed Turkey aside, hiding behind the fait accompli of new procedures or European public opinion. However, developments in Turkey and conduct by Ankara have also exacerbated some of these trends. As also recognized in EU statements and the most recent progress report,1 Turkey has experienced marked deterioration on some central pillars supporting a balance of power, such as media and judiciary.

At the same time, Turkish public opinion polls reflect deepening cynicism about the EU. The popularity of a leadership more keen on flaunting its affinity, solidarity, and close links to Muslim brothers than to European friends exacerbates concerns that Turkey has an inherently non-European disposition. This view was aggravated when the Turkish prime minister recently suggested that capital punishment could be reintroduced in Turkey because apparently this is what his constituencies desire. The democratic and strategic vision of Turkey appears to be in flux. The rhetoric Ankara employs to assert itself as a regional power or emphasize its indispensable role for the “weakening West” has increased concern about how much more difficult it would be to reach a consensus in the EU if Turkey were a member state. This perception has been recently heightened by Turkey’s conduct in NATO. Due to their bilateral rifts, Ankara blocks deeper cooperation between Israel and NATO, which has consequences for all NATO partner countries. Ankara also wrangled over the participation of the EU in the NATO Chicago summit of May 2012.2 Because 21 of the 28 NATO member states are also EU member states, such incidents raise concern in the EU about having Turkey in EU institutions. Though there is no simple solution on the horizon to reverse these dynamics, there are steps and realities that could break (or brake) the negative spiral. Turning the Tide on the Brussels-Ankara Track Among other things, the EU “positive agenda” launched this year involves setting up working groups to support Turkey’s efforts to align with the acquis (EU legislation) on chapters for which negotiations cannot be opened for the

1 2012 Progress Report, October 10, 2012:  key_documents/2012/package/tr_rapport_2012_en.pdf 2 3  The EU Commission in its Enlargement Strategy for 2011-2012 published on October 12, 2012

The popularity of a leadership keen on flaunting its affinity, solidarity, and close links to Muslim brothers than to European friends exacerbates concerns that Turkey has an inherently nonEuropean disposition.

3 This formula clearly does not solve the essential problem of the formal stalemate, but is a way to work around it for the time being, to ensure time spent in the waiting room is not wasted. A necessary complement to this track would be for the Turkish people to be informed about how this bureaucratic process affects their daily life. With the election of Francois Hollande as its president this year, expectations that France will step in to revive EU leverage over Turkey have risen, first and foremost by unblocking the five negotiation chapters blocked in 2007 by President Nikolas Sarkozy because he believed Turkey did not belong in Europe. This move left Turkish democrats and EU institutions with no leverage over Ankara to demand the implementation of EU political criteria. Today, Paris appears interested in having a more positive relationship with Ankara, and President Hollande is set to visit Ankara in early 2013. France is eager to rebuild a policy toward the Arab countries where Islamists have taken the prominent leadership positions. France’s “civilizational” snub of Turkey would hamper its ambitions towards this geography. In any case, opening the chapters France currently blocks will not open the floodgates of Turkey’s EU accession. From the Cyprus problem to eventual ratification of accession by each EU member state, ample and more legitimate opportunities to stall Turkey’s membership lie ahead.

Another possible area of improvement could come from within Turkey. The Justice and Development Party camp is also showing signs of divergence in EU approaches. The president and the deputy prime minister for economy have recently come out with statements embracing a stronger European anchor, while other key figures of the AKP government have taken on a more nationalistic and adversarial tone about the EU. The main opposition party has both a circle prioritizing EU-orientation, and a skeptical segment. There is a possibility that between the two, the pro-EU rhetoric can be enlivened in the society. The motivation of multipliers within civil society will also be a determining factor to this end. Regarding the broader society, visa-free travel is possibly the single most effective way to rejuvenate positive sentiments. More people-to-people contacts will be the most effective way to dispel myths and address mutual prejudices. A formula that would provide Turkish nationals with the opportunity for visa-free travel in return for Turkey meeting conditions related to border control and illegal migration in order to secure the Schengen border of the EU would deliver win-win advantages.4

Progress on this front was marked in June 2012 when the EU Council offered Turkey a visa liberalization process and the two sides initialed a readmission agreement. The next step, to be taken in late 2012 or early 2013, is to present to Turkey the “visa liberalization roadmap,” which will list all the conditions that Ankara will need to meet. Once a roadmap is at hand, Turkish civil society needs to advocate that Ankara carry out the relevant requirements, while EU counterparts should hold their governments accountable to sticking to the principles that have been applied to the Western Balkans on this issue. A central determinant of how Turkey will eventually fit in is also how the EU evolves. The prospect of a new model in which members have variable integration levels on different issues like security, monetary policy, or mobility could enable Turkey to join an “outer circle” that requires less cohesion and brings less burden to the EU. Although any such remodeling in the EU is bound to be a complicated and long-term process that cannot be taken for granted, the Turkish debate should keep the range of prospects in sight.

Visa-free travel is possibly the single most effective way to rejuvenate positive sentiments.

Encircling or Seeking Synergy with Turkey? The aspiring Western Balkan countries and Eastern Partnership Neighbors of the EU are also negatively affected by the EU’s preoccupation with its economic and governance-related challenges. For Western Balkan aspirants, this is seen as a “phase” and not a fate. And “EU aspirant” neighbors across the Black Sea are receiving more encouragement (than Turks) from EU member state politicians about belonging in Europe. There is an Annual Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum – the 4th annual gathering of which took place in Stockholm on 29-30 November, bringing together representatives of pro-democracy and human rights organizations of the six Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries and their counterparts from EU Member States. Within the EaP, sustained dialogue between each country’s NGO community and the Commission is coordinated, and NGOs across the region share practices and develop partnerships. EU-based foundations and political platforms engage and empower the democrats in these countries, transfer expertise, monitor and motivate progress, and provide solidarity. Though separate and different in nature, there is even a EU-Russia NGO forum. On the other hand, there is no EU platform of structured, sustained engagement for Turkish civic actors. This situation not only creates a sense of being encircled, driving a perception of hardball in Ankara, but also detaches Turkish civil society from the evolution of the Europeanization dynamics of the Eastern neighborhood. The potential multipliers of Turkey’s Europeanization experience are not utilized and Turkish civil society representation in the neighborhood is often reduced to those who carry counter-European visions. In the southern neighborhood, while Turkish business, culture, and political actors are gaining relative traction, exchange between liberal, democratic civil society to build solidarity or effectively advocate pluralistic solutions in the political sphere remains weak.

4 For detailed analysis, see

At the same time, the EU has the expressed goal of creating a synergy with Turkey in their common neighborhood, and there are few other options given the lack of coherence of foreign policy within the EU itself. Though “strategic dialogue” is a much-discussed concept, in concrete terms it seems to be reduced to conducting more regular and intensive foreign policy consultations at the foreign minister level between EU member states and Turkey. One of the ways the abstract rhetoric of strategic synergy can be substantiated on the ground is through mobilizing and integrating Turkish civil society in a structured form. Firstly, designing such a process for Turkish civil society could empower the increasingly marginalized critical organizations, link them to EU counterparts in a sustained manner, and regulate NGO-government dialogue, thus developing a watchdog function that might help compensate for the growing problem of weak checks and balances in the country.

Secondly, such a platform could be used to incorporate Turkish counterparts in EU-driven neighborhood initiatives and contribute to the development of a shared vision among a civil society connected across Europe’s East. Since structures to support civil society in this region are being developed in Brussels today, ways and means to incorporate Turkish non-state stakeholders should be considered. Last year a Civil Society Facility (CSF) was established within the EU Commission to strengthen the capacity of organizations, exchange good practice, provide training, and promote reform in the neighborhood. While channeling experience from the Eastern Partnership to the Southern Neighborhood is considered in the EU communication about the CSF, tapping into the years of EU investment in Turkish and Western Balkans’ civil society is not. Partnerships should be encouraged that cross over these new artificial dividing lines. A European Endowment for Democracy is also being established in Brussels — the priority area of which would again be the neighborhood. Given that Ankara brands itself as a growing provider of aid in the neighborhood, it could consider contributing to this endowment — also as a sign of dedication to the values and approaches the EU promotes. Moreover, the endowment could provide support to nonstate actors in Turkey. This duality would be an accurate representation of the fact that Turkey is both an exporter of democracy and economic progress, and itself in need for support to continue moving forward on these fronts. Of course, it is not only the policy community of the EU that needs to think about engaging Turkish civil society, but also Turkish NGOs that should be proactive in articulating and campaigning for a role. While the impasse at some levels of Turkey-EU relations may not be possible to unlock today, there are still many opportunities at hand for which there is little excuse not to seize — aside from impractical bureaucratic delimitations and being trapped in unconstructive discourse.

About the Author

Diba Nigar Göksel is editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.