Turkey Needs the EU: But How Much Will Its Relationship Cost?

Written by | Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Turkey’s economy is in very dire straits as it still depends on European markets and financial flows since its currency, the lira, is plummeting. Parallel to that, hurtful sanctions have recently been imposed by the United States while Russia is having it its way in Syria, which will probably end up not being Turkey’s way. As a result, the Turkish foreign ministry is issuing statements, ostentatiously mainly for the European audience. The so-called “EU Reform Action Group” met on 29 August and promised reforms of the judiciary and more. The Turkish president has just met with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin, while the economy and finance minister has just visited Paris.

But words and visits are not policy, and Turkey’s rejuvenated feeling toward Europe is not very credible for two major reasons, other than its obvious anti-US motivation. First, for years President Erdo?an has based his electoral strategy on sharp criticisms of Europe. In 2017, he even pelted EU leaders with offensive remarks, including references to “Nazis” and “gas chambers,” a total anathema in European politics. No politician in Berlin, Paris, The Hague, or Vienna will easily be convinced that these were passing, innocuous campaign words. They should rather be seen as part of a carefully crafted nationalist narrative, and these have lasting effects.

Second, a return to the rule of law in Turkey is in principle conceivable but will not happen any time soon. President Erdo?an’s power system – the new controversial constitution, the judiciary under the control of his inner circle, the 50,000 people in jail, the 150,000 presumed Gülenists sacked from their jobs, the absence of media freedom, the policy of taking foreign hostages – is a road of no return. Any move toward the independence of the judiciary, for example, would either have to be fake or, if real, would sap Mr. Erdo?an’s grasp on power. On top of this, the suspension by Brussels of accession negotiations exonerates the Turkish leadership from “EU impositions”.


Looking at the European side of the story, a striking sea change on Turkey’s accession has taken place over the past year or so. Now, not only has France ruled out accession, but the Austrian, Dutch, and German governments have made “no accession” one of the pillars of their coalition agreements. Add to this the EU’s rule of unanimity for all enlargement issues, and it becomes obvious that accession will not happen – not even preparatory work toward accession, as stated by the European Council in June.


This being said, European governments consider Turkey a strategic partner for a host of reasons and want to maintain strong ties with this predominantly Muslim country on the EU’s southeastern flank, particularly in the commercial, economic, military, counterterrorism, and humanitarian fields. Therefore, even if a political alliance is now out of the question due to Ankara going down the autocratic path, a substantial strategic partnership is still possible.


The key challenge for Turkey is not the form of its relationship with the EU, but the fact that it crucially needs EU markets, funds, and investment to prosper. The domains for cooperation that were just outlined by the EU Reform Action Group are primarily on the Customs Union and visas, and this is in itself positive. Yet, Turkey will have to demonstrate some improvements in its governance system if it wants to see progress in these limited areas.


‚Turkey Needs the EU – The Question Is How Much Its Relationship Will Cost‘ – Op-Ed by Marc Pierini – Carnegie Europe.

(The Op-Ed can be downloaded here)

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