Francois Lenoir / REUTERS Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoganmeets with European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels, Belgium, May 2017.

Turkey and the EU’s Diplomatic Stalemate

Why Neither Side Wants to Terminate the Membership Process

On July 6, 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the suspension of accession talks between the EU and Turkey. This is not the first time the parliament has expressed concerns over the state of Turkey’s bid, having passed a similar resolution in November 2016. On the surface, the body’s repeated calls for a freeze of talks and a reassessment of Turkey’s EU candidacy highlight growing concern over Ankara’s democratic credentials, particularly in the year since the failed attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his subsequent declaration of a state of emergency.

The newest resolution specifically calls for a halt in talks should the Turkish constitutional reforms that were adopted in April 2016 (and are expected to come into effect in 2019) be implemented as currently drafted. The European Parliament claimed that the proposed reforms would create a political system that fails to respect the separation of powers or offer sufficient checks and balances and thus would not comply with the criteria for accession. The resolution also notes with alarm Erdogan’s repeated declarations of support for the reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey (prohibited by Article 2 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights), as well as his repressive use of state powers during the state of emergency.

What the resolution does not do, however, is suggest that the EU should cut ties with Turkey or close the door on continued partnership with the country. Rather, it calls for sustained, and even increased, collaboration across a broad spectrum of issues, including trade, counterterrorism, and, of course, the ongoing refugee crisis. The contradiction between threatening to freeze accession negotiations over democratic backsliding and infringements of human rights on the one hand, and underscoring the importance of Turkish-EU economic and security cooperation on the other, illustrates today’s stalemate in EU-Turkish relations. On the other side, as much as Erdogan may chafe at the repeated public admonishments of the EU, he is unlikely to unilaterally cut ties with the EU. If the accession process does have to end, the president would much rather it come from the EU, allowing him to build his domestic support base by decrying what he considers the anti-Muslim biases of a blatantly “Christian club.”

THE REFUGEE FACTOR

In previous accession talks, the EU successfully used soft power—in particular the “conditionality” aspect of the process—to push for democratic reforms in states ranging from Greece, Portugal, and Spain during the Mediterranean enlargements in the 1980s to countries from the Baltics to the Balkans following the fall of communism. Unlike most previous applicants, however, Turkey has bargaining power over Brussels and an entrenched political leader willing and able to use it. The European Union needs cooperation with Turkey for a variety of economic and political reasons, including security collaboration and continued participation in the customs union. Most critically, it needs Turkey to shoulder the burden of the ongoing refugee crisis.

The fact that the EU’s reliance on Turkey is of its own making has made Brussels’ current position all the more difficult. A refugee deal struck in March 2016 promised financial support and a liberalized visa procedure for Turkish citizens in exchange for Turkey accepting the return of tens of thousands of migrants. The EU made the agreement because of the inability of its member states to agree on an alternative EU-controlled mechanism for dealing with the growing influx of migrants and refugees. It was an attempt to solve a crisis threatening to destabilize several member states by paying someone else to fix it. The fact that the EU turned to an increasingly illiberal state with an already troubled accession application created the current conundrum, leading to the internally contradictory (and ineffective) resolution.

As Turkey slides away from democratic governance, the EU has toughened its public stance to avoid the semblance of actively supporting an autocratic regime. At the same time, it cannot afford to risk making any consequential moves against Turkey, lest Erdogan make good on his threat to “open up border gates.” A European Parliament resolution provides the perfect vehicle for the EU to achieve its goals: a rebuke of the Turkish government to stress the EU’s continued steadfast dedication to democratic principles, with zero effective power to change the status quo. Even the debate surrounding the resolution’s adoption made clear that the EU is well aware that “the West needs Turkey,” as Erdogan declared in response to the earlier 2016 European Parliament resolution. Matti Maasikas, president-in-office of the European Council, noted that Turkey is “a key partner for the EU” in areas such as counterterrorism, energy, and trade. Victor Bostinaru, vice-chairof the European Parliament’s Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats, stated that “this is not the time to give up on Turkey. It is the time when criticism should be strong when necessary and when a constructive, open, and pragmatic dialogue should be maintained.” He added that Turkey and the EU should “continue their cooperation in very important areas . . . where Turkey can play a positive role.”

Despite the clear desire on the part of the EU to maintain close collaboration with Turkey across a number of policy arenas, relations continue to degrade. Escalating tensions between Germany and Turkey highlight the growing conflict resulting from Turkey’s democratic backsliding. Recent arrests of German journalists and human rights activists have led the German government to warn its citizens against traveling to Turkey, encourage the European Commission to halt efforts to modernize the EU-Turkey customs union, and limit EU accession aid. As with the European Parliament resolution, the German response has stopped short of calling for an end to EU-Turkish collaboration, but pressures resulting from the upcoming election may change that dynamic if Erdogan continues to push the envelope in his dealings with Germany, the EU, and his domestic opposition.

A CONVENIENT VILLIAN

It is important to remember that as hollow a threat as the most recent European resolution may be, it is also the case that Turkey, and particularly Erdogan, needs the EU, too, though more as a convenient adversary than an ally. From the perspective of regime survival and self-preservation, Erdogan is increasingly in need of an external villain against which he can demonstrate his strength. As domestic political pressures have mounted against him, the arena of foreign policy has become a crutch for regime stabilization and the maintenance of both his own and his government’s popularity. With the recent resolution’s passage, the EU is fulfilling exactly the role he needs.

Erdogan is increasingly in need of an external villain against which he can demonstrate his strength.

Erdogan has used the EU as a rhetorical punching bag for some time. Since 2007, the decision of individual member states to block accession chapters, their refusal to release allocated resources as part of planned accession partnerships, and the general failure of the EU to reward Turkey for taking the initiative in pursuing a pro-resolution stance over Cyprus have all provided ample motivation for Erdogan to disengage from the accession process. Indeed, these actions have served to bolster Erdogan’s public assertion that the EU is anti-Muslim and insincere in its pursuit of Turkish membership. As the domestic popularity of EU membership declined in response to that interpretation, active pursuit of it ceased to be politically lucrative. Even so, simply walking away from the accession process is not in Erdogan’s interests.

Since 2012, Erdogan’s domestic standing as leader has been threatened on several fronts, owing mainly to the feud between him and the Gulen Movement, led by Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish Islamic scholar. Until recently, the Gulenists were an integral ally of Erdogan’s governing coalition. Owing to fundamental ideological differences and inability to share power, the alliance between the two political heavyweights collapsed in the early 2010s. Gulen loyalists have since mounted several attempts to unseat Erdogan as Turkey’s chief executive, including corruption probes against Erdogan, his family, and key ministers of his ruling party. These efforts culminated in the attempted July 2016 coup.

Thus far, Erdogan has been able to weather the onslaught, in large part because of his strong and surprisingly durable base of popular support. That support comes in part from his ability to cast himself as the defender of Turkish identity against an EU aggressor. The most recent European Parliament resolution fits well within this narrative. Erdogan is now able to point to the resolution as a continuation of past EU injustices, including the lackluster condemnation of the aborted coup by EU officials. The EU continues to look unsympathetic to the threats against Turkish sovereignty and provides a safe haven for Gulen activists and pro-Kurdish separatists.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to envisage how the accession process can continue. That said, neither the EU nor Erdogan is interested in being the first to terminate it. Were Erdogan to do so, it would confirm that Turkey is no longer interested in remaining a member of the community of democratic Western states. In such a scenario, Erdogan would likely reap significant short-term electoral gains from his support base for taking decisive and long-awaited action against the perceived transgressions and biases of the EU. In the medium to longer term, however, such an action could have potentially dire economic consequences if Turkey’s membership in the EU customs union were curtailed. Approximately two-thirds of the country’s EU trading interests could ultimately be jeopardized, not to mention a potentially substantial drop in foreign direct investment. Terminating talks would also represent a fundamental and possibly irreparable break for Turkey’s world position. Dating from the establishment of the republic in 1923, throughout the Cold War, and into the post-9/11 period, Turkey’s position in the liberal international order has been predicated upon its identification as a Western power and European partner. At present, Erdogan’s response to EU actions has been an assertion that this position needs to be rethought or altogether abandoned. His threat is likely empty, however, since neither he nor Turkey has a viable alternative given the depth of current economic and military ties to the EU and the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.

The de jure abandonment of Turkey’s EU ambition, no matter how unlikely an accession outcome is at this point, would rob Erdogan of an extremely useful political propaganda tool. At the same time, were the EU Commission and member states to actually end Turkey’s candidacy, it would mean not only admitting the failure of soft power and conditionality on a grand scale but also playing into Erdogan’s hand and solidifying his increasingly undemocratic grasp on power within Turkey. Thus, the European Parliament’s resolution—while it makes for good headlines and allows the EU to claim it is standing up for democracy in Turkey—in reality is little more than fodder for Erdogan’s domestic political game and a fig leaf for the EU.

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