There was an appetite in the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to support Turkey’s accession to the European Union. This appetite died down in later years for reasons attributable mainly to the EU, but also to Turkey. A belated awareness now seems to be dawning both in Turkey and the EU that a new framework for Turkey-EU relations is needed.
If any appetite is left in Turkey, it can be found only among the educated elite. The political decision-makers prefer a defiant rhetoric that blames the EU for everything that goes wrong. On the EU side, every member country has its own perception of relations with Turkey.
The Netherlands and Austria hold a distinctly tough attitude. The Dutch Foreign Ministry announced last week it had decided to withdraw its ambassador in Ankara. The escalation that led to this point started in March last year, when the Dutch authorities prevented Fatma Sayan Kaya, the Turkish Minister of Family Affairs, from addressing Turkish citizens in Rotterdam’s Turkish Consulate. Furthermore, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s private plane was barred from landing. Turkey was expecting an apology or at least an expression of sorrow for these two events, but apparently the Dutch authorities remain unmoved.
A tough attitude may also be expected from Austria, especially after Sebastian Kurz became Chancellor. He was foreign minister when laws were introduced that banned foreign financial support for mosques in Austria, and made it compulsory for the Qur’an to be taught in German. If other countries are inspired by the Austrian practise, reading the Qur’an in languages other than Arabic may spread in non-Arab countries.
Another nation that made an official statement on suspending Turkey’s EU accession negotiations was Belgium. It was not previously among the countries that opposed Turkey’s accession, but Prime Minister Charles Michel changed that position last year and announced his country now favored ending negotiations with Ankara.
Although Ankara’s accession to the bloc is firmly opposed by many members, it is in a strong position to negotiate privileged partner status due to its important role in efforts to ensure stability in the Middle East.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel maintains her opposition to Turkey’s full membership of the EU. In the coalition protocol she signed last week with the Social Democrat Party (SPD), Turkey’s EU accession is mentioned twice in negative terms. It says: “No new negotiation chapter should be opened with Turkey and those that are open should not be closed.” This has to be perceived as a strong veto by a major EU country.
France maintains its position that a new framework is necessary for EU relations with Turkey. President Emmanuel Macron informed his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of this position in an honest exchange of views.
Other EU countries either do not oppose Turkey’s accession or keep silent, but Turkey understands that doors are being closed one after the other. It knew that there would be objections within the EU to the admission of a predominantly Muslim country of more than 80 million inhabitants, but expected that it would be able to overcome them. However, the rise of extreme right-wing political parties in many EU countries, acts of terror committed by Muslim extremists, and the rise of Daesh changed the situation.
Countless press reports, though persistently denied by Turkey, claimed that extremist fighters used Turkey as a highway to join Daesh’s ranks in Syria and Iraq. This played an important role in the swaying of public opinion in many EU countries against Turkey’s entry. It would be unrealistic for Turkey to ignore this reality. Despite this, Ankara does not want to be the party that leaves the negotiating table; but neither does the EU. Therefore, a realistic approach that would call spade a spade may be necessary.
Turkey rightly complains of not being treated by the EU on equal footing with other candidate countries. However, whether it will be admitted or not, the process may end up with some sort of privileged partnership or a status comparable to the UK after Brexit — but even for such a status it would have to fulfill a number of criteria. Turkey should be able to fulfill these, not for the sake of joining the EU, but for improving its own standards. This was the idea Erdogan used to promote 16 years ago.
Despite the widespread negative attitude surrounding Turkey’s EU accession, the latest developments in the Middle East demonstrate that it might play an important role in the stability of the region if its potential is properly utilized. European leaders may use the EU-Turkey summit, which is scheduled to be held on March 26 in Bulgaria, for an exchange of views on its possible contribution to regional stability and try to strike a balance between the role that Turkey could play and the framework for its relations with the EU.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.