Author: Gerben Wedekind, Brussels Representative, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey)
A New Turkey and a New EU:
What to Expect for 2015?
2014 was an intense year for both Turkey and the EU. Against the backdrop of a cooling-down economy (Turkey) and sluggish recovery (EU), the most important changes for both players undoubtedly took place in the political domain. In August 2014, after having served eleven years as prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Turkey’s first-ever directly elected president. Erdoğan’s trusted aide, former Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu was appointed as prime minister. Following the presidential elections, Erdoğan’s conservative Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) further consolidated its power. Consequentially, Erdoğan’s notion of the ‘New Turkey’ –a strong, independent Turkey with a ballot-style democracy, wary of military coups and ‘parallel structures’ and with Erdoğan and the AKP firmly steering the country into its first centennial in 2023– was brought one step closer to fruition.
More or less simultaneously, three major European Institutions –the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament– experienced significant overhauls as mandates expired. Former Polish PM, Donald Tusk was hailed President of the European Council– a landmark decision as it was the first time a (not so) ‘new’ EU Member State managed to secure one of the EU’s top jobs. Luxembourgian political veteran Jean-Claude Juncker became President of the European Commission, whereas the European Parliament elections resulted in a victory largely for the Eurosceptic party groups and parliamentarians –mostly at the expense of the three ‘traditional’ parliamentary groups, the conservative European Peoples Party (EPP), the Social-Democrats (S&D) and the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
Now that the dust has settled somewhat and a new year has arrived, we can finally take stock and examine what these changes in the political landscape meant and mean for Turkey-EU relations.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidential term started-out hopeful for EU-Turkey relations, at least in theory. Already during his election campaign in summer 2014, Erdoğan declared to become an ‘active’ president, particularly in the foreign policy domain. And indeed, when taking his oath Erdoğan already vowed to make EU membership the top priority of Turkey. Policy-makers followed suit, and under the guidance of Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, Volkan Bozkır, a new EU strategy was launched in November 2014. The Strategy itself boldly takes stock of Turkey’s “spectacular transformation” since 2002 while simultaneously envisaging getting the country closer to the EU in terms of political and socio-economic standards. More positivity filled the air following a visit of three members of the new European Commission –including Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn. During its visit the EU’s top brass recalled the “strategically important” bilateral relations between the EU-Turkey, with Mogherini allegedly declaring that “Our top priority will be Turkey’s EU accession process.”
Yet, after these platitudes –heard so often already over the years– the mood changed drastically and things spiralled out of control quickly. On December 14, Turkish police arrested 24 leading journalists on the suspicion of being linked to a terrorist organisation and having ties with wanted Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen –whom the Turkish authorities suspect wanting to establish a ‘parallel state.’ Not entirely coincidentally, and with some sense for drama, the raid took place nearly one year after the Turkish judiciary launched a massive graft probe into Erdoğan’s inner circle. This presumably Gülen-instigated graft operation led to the resignation of 4 ministers and presented Erdoğan with his biggest political challenge up-to-date.
In a statement issued directly after the arrests, the EU appeared not-amused. In strong wordings it reminded Turkey that its dire track-record with regard to media freedom (i.e. a world leader in the number of jailed journalists, with large parts of the media facing pressures and engaging in self-censorship) is incompatible with one of the core conditions for EU-membership: liberal democracy. And despite declaring 2014, a “European Year” for Turkey, Erdoğan in turn was quick to return to ‘business as usual’, rebuking any criticism and telling the EU that it “(…) should mind its own business and keep its own opinions to itself.”
In just a matter of days, the fragile ‘rapprochement’ was smashed to tatters and once more EU-Turkey relations hit rock-bottom.
Certainly, Turkey and the EU are strategic partners –in terms of economy and geopolitics–and would benefit from having close relations. Over the past decades, ties between the EU and Turkey have frequently severed. Yet, mutual dependency has often soothed and salvaged relations. This was especially pertinent when Turkey was one of the world’s fastest growing economies –one of the ‘MINT’ countries alongside Mexico, Indonesia and Nigeria– while EU Members where experiencing the worst recession since the 1920s.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether Turkey-EU relations can be polished once more in 2015. It might well be that negativity finally has gotten hold over the intrinsic value of mutual dependency between the EU and Turkey.
Compared to a few years ago, Turkey’s present economic prospects look rather gloomy. With inflation and unemployment on the rise and the Lira devaluating, Turkey has seen its growth prospects dampen. Instead of a MINT country, Turkey is now considered a member of the “Fragile Five.” Alongside Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and India, analysts consider Turkey particularly prone to negative external influences –predominantly due its significant current account deficit.
Another aspect which could hamper EU-Turkey relations further is Erdoğan himself. Policy-makers in Europe feel increasingly doubtful about Turkey’s European credentials when reading Erdoğan’s statements about the “natural” inequality between men and women or his pledge to reintroduce the Ottoman language at schools –nearly a century after Atatürk introduced the Latin alphabet at the expense of the Arabic one.  Moreover, many feel increasingly worried about Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies. Although an ‘active’ President, many fear that Erdoğan has become rather too active, with the president recently chairing cabinet meetings or National Security Council meetings in his Ak Saray –his new and pompous presidential palace built on the premises of the former Atatürk forest.  Equally worrying, Erdoğan has never made secret out of his ambitions to transform the Turkish presidency from a largely symbolic position into a more ‘American-style’ posting, in which a president possesses significant executive powers. In order to bring forward necessary constitutional amendments the AKP should ensure a two-thirds majority in the June 2015 parliamentary elections.
Another issue impeding Turkey-EU relations are Turkey’s foreign policy choices, which – although serving Turkey’s interests in the short-run– raise question marks in the West. So far, NATO-member Turkey has acted reluctantly in the Syria conflict and has been slow to heed American requests for using its İncirlik airbase in operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, in the wake of the recent conflict in Ukraine –in which Russia annexed the Crimea, stirred-up secessionist movements in East Ukraine, and consequentially saw tensions between the EU and Russia rise to unprecedented levels– Turkey has been steadily vamping relations with Russia. Despite an EU trade-embargo with Russia, Turkey is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with Russia while talks about increased and discounted Russian gas imports are continuing at a steady pace.  Unsurprisingly, the first related indignations have arisen at European level, with the European Parliament’s Chair of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee Kefalogiannis accusing Turkey of exploiting the EU’s Russian quagmire for its own interests while urging “As a candidate country, Turkey should bring its foreign policy into line with that of the EU.”
Perhaps most importantly, it seems that the mood has changed in Brussels and Strasbourg. The EU has been slow to recover from a severe recession, whereas concerns about the ‘Islamification’ of Europe are currently increasing in breadth and profundity (with the Pegida movement in Germany and the Al-Qaida-backed assault on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as prime examples). Simultaneously, enlargement appears to have tumbled-down the European Commission’s priority list. Juncker’s Political Guidelines –which largely define the policy orientation of the European Commission for the years to come– state that “(…) the EU needs to take a break from enlargement.” Although he declared that negotiations will continue –predominantly with the Western Balkans–, Juncker envisages halting the expansion of the EU for at least five years. In accordance with this policy orientation, the new European Commission lacks a commissioner solely responsible for enlargement. Instead, Commissioner Johannes Hahn has been charged merely with ‘negotiating’ enlargement, not with making enlargement actually happen.
In addition, the EU has been largely unresponsive to respond to Turkey’s calls to be included in Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) –the massive free trade agreement between the EU and US. Although it is still too early to tell whether Turkey will be in– or excluded in the final deal, Prime Minister Davutoğlu has already signalled that Turkey is ready to “discuss” the EU-Turkey Customs Union in case of exclusion. As the Customs Union is a sine qua non for Turkey’s EU-membership, dissolving it would mean that Turkey’s EU-bid will be effectively halted.
All of this is dire news for Turkey’s EU aspirations –especially when considering that many of its European friends have left the stage following elections. To make matters worse, the ones that are still present in Brussels and Strasbourg are often left disgruntled and disappointed over Turkey’s present course, with the country apparently drifting away from the West. The times that Turkey could count on support from the European Parliament’s Friends of Turkey intergroup or the former European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle –sharp, but always keen to continue dialogue while pointing-out the common interests of Turkey and the EU– appear to have long gone. Instead, Turkey appears to have been removed from the EU’s immanent policy priorities, with no formal reference to the country in Juncker’s Political Guidelines.
So, 2015 could well be a year of a least stalemate and possibly even further regression in Turkey-EU relations. Is there nothing positive to mention at all then? Yes there is: first, in its October 2014 Progress Report on Turkey, the European Commission called for setting opening benchmarks for negotiation chapters 23 and 24 –on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Justice, Freedom and Security– with a view of opening actual negotiations on these chapters. Although it remains to be seen to what extent the Juncker Commission will actively pursue policy recommendations made by its predecessor, there might be nevertheless a small opportunity that Turkey-EU negotiations are taken forward in these areas of “mutual interest.”
Secondly, Turkey appears to be (re-)committed to furthering its EU-bid –at least on paper and rhetorically. Yet, it should be stated that despite this apparent commitment, it seems that too often Turkey pays mere lip-service to its EU-membership goal. Not uncommonly, it is keen to point-out the shortcomings of the 28-member bloc, while simultaneously pursuing policies which are in clear discord with the EU’s interests or principles. Although Prime Minister Davutoğlu might have recently declared that “Our determination on EU accession will continue (…)”, it might well be too little too late, as winds in Brussels and Strasbourg might have changed, at least for the year to come.
Gerben Wedekind, Brussels Representative, Centre for Policy and research on Turkey (Research Turkey)
Publication as follows:
Wedekind, G. (March, 2015), “A New Turkey and a New EU: What to expect for 2015?”, Vol. IV, Issue 3, pp.6-13, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8120)
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