Written by Stelios Kavvadias
Turkey has been at the doorstep of Europe since 1987, when the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union, received its accession application. However, it was only in 2005—almost 20 years later—that the negotiations for a full membership began. Unlike Croatia, which started the EU accession talks in 2005, for example Turkey is still not an EU member state. In fact, the majority of the so-called Copenhagen criteria chapters are still closed.
Aside from the formal process of accession, there were only a few times that bilateral political will, in terms of decisive steps towards the aforementioned goal, was aligned. The scales were constantly shifting over whether or not Turkey should become a member of the EU based on political challenges, diverging interests and leadership. As a result, the prospects of Turkey becoming an EU member state seemed far from a reality.
The incident that played an extremely grave role in the EU–Turkey relations and inevitably to the accession process was the failed coup d’état in Turkey in 2016. In the aftermath, the Turkish officials stated that the EU was not supportive enough during one of the most crucial periods of their modern history (Peat, 2016). On the contrary, European politicians expressed concerns about the tougher, to say the least, domestic and foreign policy that Turkey subsequently followed. Since the attempted coup, 160,000 public officials have been dismissed and 60,000 civilians, including more than 700 children, have been jailed after being accused of perpetrating the coup attempt and or being a member of a terrorist group as determined by the Turkish authorities (Güveli, 2018). In addition, the Turkish government’s promise to reinstate the death penalty has created a dangerous mixture redolent of authoritarianism (Yusuf, 2017).
The hardline stance and ensuing policies have a name behind them: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he has stood as the leading political figure in Turkey since 2003. He famously refers to the coup as “a gift from God” in his efforts to build the “new Turkey” (Champion, 2017). Following the 2017 referendum and the recent elections that Mr. Erdoğan won, from 2019 onwards he will become the ultimate head of state. He will not be accountable to the Turkish parliament, and he will have the right to direct intervention in the judicial system, amongst other heightened powers (BBC, 2017; Stevens, 2017). The recent collapse of the Turkish lira is strongly linked to the desire of Mr. Erdoğan to cement his control over the country’s institutions, such as the Central Bank (Grossman,2017). Therefore, the powers of the forthcoming one–man regime seem to extend into many fields and carry the risk of severe consequences for the Turkish people.
There are frequent and rampant examples of repression of the freedom of speech and the expression of opinions that do not match with the governmental beliefs. More precisely, the Internet—the very means that Erdoğan utilized in order to pass the message of resistance against the coup attempt—is a field of surveillance and propaganda. Meanwhile, several social media channels have been blocked under Erdoğan’s regime. Notably, in 2013, the AKP party formed a team of 6,000 individuals to reproduce the party’s views on social media, fighting critics and tracing opposition rhetoric (Albayrak & Parkinson, 2013).
Regarding Turkey’s foreign policy in relation to EU members, the message is not positive, either. The strategy of “Zero problems with neighbors” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, 2004) belongs without any doubt to the past. Only the relations with Bulgaria seem to be stable. This is why the EU–Turkey summit took place in Varna this year, a meeting that was unfortunately not very productive in terms of results but put forth a high chance that it will be repeated annually in the coastal city (Gotev, 2018). On the contrary, the tension in the Aegean Sea is growing every day as Turkish fighter jets, helicopters (eKathimerini, 2018a) and vessels (Michalopoulos, 2017a) impose frequent violations on the Greek/European air and naval borders (Kambas, Maltezou, & Pamuk, 2017). Ramming Greek patrol boats (eKathimerini, 2018c) or flying relatively low (at 3,200 ft.) over the Greek–inhabited island of Farmakonisi with an armed F‒16—without having communicated and being granted permission for a flight plan from the Greek authorities or without being a part of a planned military action on which the Greek government has been briefed before—cannot be considered as an act of peace (eKathimerini, 2018c). Furthermore, the case of the eight Turkish military personnel requesting asylum after the failed coup and Greece’s denial to return them to Turkey, claiming that they would not have a fair trial in their homeland, has intensified the situation even more so. There is also heightened tension concerning the extended custody of two Greek military personnel who accidentally crossed the Greek–Turkish land border in the Evros under harsh weather conditions during their patrol, providing Turkey a unique bargaining chip (Masters, 2018). On 14 August, Turkey finally released the two Greek soldiers without laying any official charges after five and a half months of custody. Similar incidents which occurred in the past from both sides were resolved usually in less than 24 hours, yet this particular situation was deliberately escalated by the Turkish authorities, fostering the newfound tensions within Greek and Turkish diplomatic relations.
Meanwhile, and only several miles away, Turkey has found contention with Cyprus as the Turkish navy has been consistently blocking oil and gas research and drilling missions within a part of the sea demarcated as Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (Deutsche Welle, 2018). Considering also the open diplomatic wound between Cyprus and Turkey that was created due to the Turkish invasion in the island contributes to the general negative climate.
The poor relations with neighboring EU member states is not the only great obstacle for a healthy coexistence. Erdoğan’s government openly attempted to divert the votes of Turks living in the EU away from political parties which he conceived as opposition or unfriendly to his regime; this, consequently, constitutes a direct intervention in the domestic political life of another country (Pierini, 2018). The EU has also condemned the abduction of six Turkish nationals from Kosovo, which was carried out in cooperation with the local authorities (Güveli, 2018). Meanwhile, the military intervention in the Afrin region has sparked a lot of negative feedback from European officials. The EU’s view on the Turkish reality was summarized in the 2018 report towards membership, which put emphasis on the negative developments within the topics of fundamental rights and rule of law (EURACTIV, 2018). In any case, the European Union must be very decisive in terms of protecting its borders, its citizens, its investments and its internal political situation; any threat posed to an EU member state must be treated as a threat to the Union in its entirety.
However, the EU should never underestimate Turkey’s importance as a strategic partner. Turkey is the fifth largest trading partner of Europe, with the total of €154,251 million in 2017 (European Commission, 2018). In fact, there is a significant annual growth in trade volume since 2001 (European Commission, 2018). Moreover, the EU and Turkey share some geostrategic interests, such as in the energy field and the plans to supply Europe with gas from Azerbaijan. There could also be valuable results from cooperation in the battle against terrorism. Lastly, the recent example of the €6 billion agreement for Turkey as compensation for keeping thousands of people from advancing into Europe demonstrates that common ground can be found when it comes to advancements that include economic considerations. In other words, when an alışveriş (Turkish word for “(business) dealings”) is about to take place, then an agreement can be reached more easily.
Therefore, this is probably the area within which the EU should invest its efforts the most. Less than a year ago, the European parliament voted in favor of the suspension of accession talks with Turkey, pointing out that in a country where a human rights meltdown is being carried out, the fundamental principles of democracy are no longer in place (Deutsche Welle, 2017). The future does not seem to hold any positive turn, either. The representatives’ decision follows the European public opinion, which is strongly against the scenario of Turkey becoming a member state (Kroet, 2017). In addition, the governments of Germany, France, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands have openly stated their opposition to Turkey’s accession (Pierini, 2018). Currently, Europe’s interest is concentrated in the Western Balkans, as accession is one of the top priorities of the Bulgarian presidency (Simić, 2018).
The previously discussed developments could be an opportunity for the remaining European powers to stop pretending that they are in favor of the prospect of Turkey joining the EU, if this is the case. Thus, the EU could focus on reducing Turkey’s influence in the Western Balkans by using its soft power. Finally, the EU could take more decisive steps against violations of international law that stem from Turkey or any other destabilizing power, thus acting as a beacon of justice but more importantly, as a Union which protects its members. In other words, as Mr. Junker has stated, what is needed is a Europe “that protects, empowers and defends” (Barker & Brunsden, 2017).
Stelios is a young IT professional who is currently based in Athens. He possesses a BSc in Digital Systems from the University of Piraeus. In the past, he had the opportunity to study as an Erasmus student at the University of Stockholm in the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences. Stelios has been chosen as a “Telemachus Mentee” from the Global Thinkers Forum and he specializes in Digital policy while also having a great interest for International Relations.
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