Turkey won't be joining the European Union anytime soon. Although it has been in the process of becoming a member since 2005, its odds of accession are lower today than ever before. Neither side is willing to pull the plug on the endeavor. Were the European Commission to halt the process, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would declare it a Christian club of racists who never intended to admit a Muslim country to the Continental bloc. Erdogan himself, meanwhile, is reluctant to subject Turkey to the grave economic consequences that summarily ending its accession would cause. And because Turkey and the European Union depend on their relationship, cooler heads necessarily must prevail to preserve their partnership.
Yet at the same time, neither side is particularly keen on the prospect of Turkey's membership. Even at the start of the accession, Brussels' enthusiasm for including Turkey was insincere at best. Erdogan's unprecedented efforts to fulfill the requirements for EU membership — including an attempt to reverse Turkey's widely condemned policy toward Cyprus and reforms to bring Turkish legal and governmental infrastructure into compliance with EU standards — were in vain. They were enough to enable Turkey to begin formal proceedings to join the European Union, but they didn't stop the German and French governments from blocking its path to membership. Brussels almost immediately ceded any leverage that it had over Turkey's continued path toward democracy and Europeanization and turned Erdogan and his supporters against the bloc. By moving the goal posts for membership, in fact, the European Union encouraged the decline of democracy and the degradation of human rights in Turkey that it so often criticizes.
Giving Up and Cracking Down
The bloc's failure to provide a final accession date signaled to Erdogan that the European Union wasn't interested in taking on his country as a member. In response, Ankara gave up on trying to meet the requirements to join. Rather than chase the unattainable mirage of membership, Erdogan found it more politically lucrative to bet against the bloc and to vilify it. The onset of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and Istanbul's Gezi Park protests in 2013 further jeopardized Turkey's accession. As the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) cracked down on dissent after the first wave of mass protests against Erdogan's governing style and policies, he blamed the European Union and the West for orchestrating what he called "fake" demonstrations. He turned to the same scapegoat in the wake of the attempted coup against him in July 2016, which most EU governments were slow to condemn. (To this day, Erdogan claims that his ouster would have pleased the European Union.)
Yet conversely, the coup attempt afforded Erdogan a rare political opportunity. It enabled him, for example, to impose a state of emergency under the Turkish Constitution, initially with the ostensible goal of preventing more coup attempts and tracking down the plotters. Soon enough, the state of emergency turned into a witch hunt resulting in the purging of the civil service and military, as well as the detention of hundreds of thousands of citizens. The coup attempt, which Erdogan referred to as a "gift from God," gave him the perfect pretext to go after his political opponents while condemning all those who stood in his way. The more the European Union criticized the AKP's response, including the jailing of journalists and academics, the more vehemently the Turkish president accused Europe of supporting the cause of terrorists and terrorism.
A Quid Pro Quo Arrangement
Nevertheless, both sides are sticking with the accession. As migrants from the Middle East and North Africa flooded its shores in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the European Union quickly realized that for the right price, Turkey could stanch the flow. Brussels struck a deal with Ankara in late 2016, offering cash, eased travel restrictions for Turkish citizens and the possibility of an expanded customs union in exchange for Turkey's help in keeping immigrants from reaching Europe. Ankara has kept up its end of the bargain, but strong objections from Germany and from the European Commission have prevented it from getting anything but money in return.
This transactional approach to bilateral relations — absent of values and wholly predicated on reciprocal demands — has become the new normal for Turkey and the European Union. To go beyond it, Ankara and Brussels will have to make some hard choices. Given Turkey's departure from democratic governance, it won't realistically be able to meet the requirements for accession. Public opinion in Turkey and in the European Union, moreover, rejects that goal. (Fewer than 20 percent of people in Turkey support the country's membership bid.)
Even so, Erdogan and the Continental bloc realize that their sustained cooperation will be vital in several areas. Turkey's continued assistance in regional security initiatives, for example, will become all the more relevant as Russia and Iran work to expand their spheres of strategic influence, which interfere with Europe's objectives. In addition, Turkey will play a central role in EU efforts to develop energy routes to Europe that bypass Russia. Ankara, in turn, will try to use these issues to renegotiate the terms of its customs union with the bloc, which currently excludes Turkish agricultural exports, as well as the free movement of labor.
A transactional approach to bilateral relations — absent of values and wholly predicated on reciprocal demands — has become the new normal for Turkey and the European Union.
On these matters, Turkey and Europe can find equitable and agreeable solutions. But their success depends on whether Erdogan's government is willing to stop disparaging the bloc and its members to shore up its standing at home. So long as the country's president keeps calling EU leaders Nazis and "supporters of terrorism," Turkey's friends in the European Union will be few and far between. The fault, however, doesn't lie just with Ankara. Difficult as it may be, the EU leadership must reach a consensus on Turkey's relationship with the bloc, keeping the country's interests in mind. The two sides, after all, still have the chance to rekindle their bilateral relationship to their mutual benefit.