Asli Aydintasbas (European Council on Foreign Relations)
The relations between the European Union and Turkey are at a critical stage. The European Parliament has supported a suspension of the negotiation process for Turkey’s EU accession talks in a non-binding vote. The mutual relations have never been simple and there have been stages of progress and setbacks over the five decades. However, now, left on the table is the question of whether the continuation of the rapprochement between the two sides is desirable at all.
For those more than fifty years, Turkey has become part of the customs union and since 2006 it has led official talks on the accession to the Union. The country’s economy is considerably interconnected with the EU economy. About half of Turkey’s exports go to EU countries, while, in the opposite direction, nearly 75 percent of the total foreign investments in Turkey come from the EU. Mutual relations reached their peak earlier this year when the EU was trying to prevent the influx of refugees pouring in from Syria through Turkey. In an agreement signed between both parties, the Turks pledged to secure its Western borders and accept refugees from Greece in exchange for 6 billion euros and an acceleration of the negotiation process leading to the EU accession.
However, following the failed military coup of July 2016, the relations have considerably cooled. Turkish officials have complained that EU politicians had failed to condemn the attempted coup soon enough and had not explicitly expressed their support for the democratically elected representatives. The developments that followed in the coming months confirmed the negative trend of the deterioration of democratic standards in Turkey, as noted in the European Commission’s last evaluation report. More than 40,000 people, including prominent Kurdish politicians, were arrested, many media outlets were shut down and a debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty was initiated.
Even in this situation, it is not in the EU’s interest to terminate relations with Turkey. The Union should approach Turkey in a different fashion. First and foremost, both sides should interact at the highest level and avoid the escalating rhetoric. The EU should offer Turkey an alternative to the full membership: an improved customs union treaty that would better suit the needs of the Turkish industry, but that would also put an emphasis on meeting certain democratic principles.
When the heads of state and government met at the December summit of the European Council, they should have taken into account Turkey’s strategic potential in the long run and spoken out for the continuation of the cooperation. In today’s dynamic world, it is not in the Union’s interest to let Turkey turn to Russia or fall into a period of instability.