Turkey's Relationship With the EU: It's Complicated

9 MINS READMar 23, 2018 | 16:49 GMT
Social and political differences between Turkey and the European Union show no signs of abating.

Despite the likelihood of discord, there is too much at stake in the EU-Turkey relationship for the two parties to stop working together on some issues. 

  • The European Union and Turkey will seek to relaunch their bilateral relations during a summit March 26.
  • While Turkey will not join the European Union anytime soon, the parties can still cooperate in areas such as updating their customs union agreement.
  • However, issues such as the dispute over Cyprus, EU criticism of Erdogan's domestic policies and Turkey's increasingly unilateral action in the conflict in Syria will continue to generate friction between Brussels and Ankara.

The European Union and Turkey are looking for ways to improve their bilateral relationship after months of strain. On March 26, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Bulgaria. Though EU officials have hailed the meeting as an opportunity to relaunch political and economic cooperation, there are simply too many unresolved disputes between the neighbors for that to happen. And despite its ambitions Turkey is unlikely to join the bloc in the next several years, if ever. Unable to fully integrate, Turkey and the European Union will instead cooperate on a case-by-case basis in areas where they share common interests.

The Big Picture

In our 2018 Annual Forecast we said that relations between the European Union and Turkey would be defined by a combination of cooperation and friction. On the one hand, the European Union wants to keep its migration agreement with Turkey alive and is willing to use trade as a tool to keep Ankara engaged. On the other, a long list of unsolved bilateral issues will still create obstacles in the bilateral relationship. An upcoming summit between the two will highlight these contradictions. 

High Hopes Slowly Dashed

Turkey has historically had many reasons to want to align itself with the European Union. The country first applied to join the bloc's predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1959, two years after the group's creation. Having already joined the NATO military alliance earlier that decade, Turkey was interested in developing closer ties with the West, and it also saw cooperation with Western Europe as a way to modernize its economy and deepen its trade ties with a region experiencing fast growth after the war. The goal was for Turkey to progressively align its economic and political institutions with those of the EEC before eventually joining the bloc.

But that momentum soon faded. Turkish leaders failed to introduce many of the liberalizing economic reforms requested by their European partners. Meanwhile, fluctuations within the nascent multi-party system in Turkey and a succession of military coups between the 1960s and the 1980s created additional political uncertainty that complicated negotiations between Ankara and Brussels. Then Greece, a country often at odds with Turkey, joined the European bloc in 1981 and began hindering negotiations. Despite these issues, Turkey formally applied for membership in 1987, and in 1995 it established a customs union agreement with the newly created European Union.

During the 2000s, Turkey saw both progress and setbacks in its efforts to join the European Union. The country introduced several reforms requested by the bloc, such as the abolition of the death penalty and measures to consolidate civilian control over the military. But then Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, earning ammo in its decadeslong dispute with Turkey over the latter's occupation of northern Cyprus. Cyprus has used its veto power multiple times to block several chapters of the EU-Turkish negotiations.

Deeper transformations have led Turkey and the European Union to grow further apart in the past two decades. The victory of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 Turkish general elections marked the start of a deep political shift, as the new elites started to look increasingly to the east for partnership while adopting stricter positions on social and religious issues. At the same time, a surge of nationalism in the European Union diminished the bloc's interest in welcoming a large and less-wealthy Muslim country such as Turkey. France, the Netherlands and Germany were the most outspoken in opposing such cooperation. More recently, Ankara's crackdown on Kurdish Turks, opposition figures and the media following the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 didn't help.

Pragmatism If Not Progress

Turkey and Europe's many social and political differences mean it will almost certainly fail to join the European Union anytime soon. As both parties have begun acknowledging that fact, the bloc has lost much of its leverage over Ankara, since it can no longer reasonably promise accession in exchange for political and economic reform.

But despite the likelihood of discord, there is too much at stake in the EU-Turkey relationship for the two parties to stop working together on some issues. The two parties' bilateral trade ties are strong, and millions of people of Turkish descent live in EU countries while thousands of European companies operate in Turkey. Moreover, Turkey is a significant player in the various conflicts in the Middle East, and the European Union is very interested in working toward stability in that region, since Middle Eastern conflicts increase migrant flows to Europe, disrupt energy prices and raise the risk of terrorism. So even if the meeting between Juncker, Tusk and Erdogan won't usher in a new age of close partnership between Turkey and the European Union, the two parties will continue bilateral cooperation on a case-by-case basis.

Indeed, now that EU accession is not a credible goal, trade will be a major motivating factor.  Turkey is the European Union's fourth-largest exports destination and its fifth-largest origin of imports, while the bloc is Turkey's main trade partner. Thus, one important area of potential agreement is the updating of the parties' customs deal, a subject that may well be discussed during the March 26 meeting. In its current form, the EU-Turkey customs agreement does not include agricultural products, government procurement or services, leaving significant room for improvement. There will be roadblocks no doubt; the European Union tends to be protective of its farmers, which could complicate an agreement with Turkey that includes agricultural products. Turkey, in turn, could be reluctant to open its public procurement market to more competitive European companies. But the benefits of a close trade relationship will still drive Brussels and Ankara to the negotiating table.

Another likely area of continued alignment is the European Union's migration agreement with Turkey. The March 2016 agreement designated that Ankara would work to prevent asylum seekers from the Middle East from reaching the European Union, and it has been effective. According to data from the United Nations, roughly 172,000 migrants arrived to Europe by sea in 2017, compared to more than a million in 2015. As part of the deal, Brussels promised Ankara 6 billion euros ($7.4 billion) in assistance for asylum seekers stranded in Turkey. The disbursement of money has been slow, and a recent EU report warned of irregularities in Turkey's use of the money, but it's in Brussels best political interest to keep the agreement in place. Indeed, on March 14 the European Commission approved the disbursement of a tranche of 3 billion euros for Turkey.

No Shortage of Stumbling Blocks

Even in areas of collaboration, there will continue to be disagreement between Europe and Turkey. For example, the European Union has so far failed to honor its promise to lift visa restrictions for Turkish citizens visiting the bloc in exchange for Turkey's actions against migrants. Before it lifts the visa restrictions, the European Union wants Turkey to reform its terrorism laws, which the bloc believes allow the government to crack down on opponents. More broadly, Brussels fears that the easier it becomes for Turkish citizens to enter the European Union, the more likely it will be that some may decide to stay in the bloc illegally after the end of their visiting period. A compromise on visa liberalization is possible but improbable; Turkey could agree to narrow down its definition of terrorism, and the European Union could lift visa requirements on a conditional basis. But there will still be tension. These terms would be hard to digest for the multiple EU governments under pressure from nationalist and anti-immigration political parties. And Turkey has repeatedly expressed its frustration with the union's failure to honor all the terms of the migration agreement, accusing Brussels of being dishonest.

The disputes between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Europe in the Eastern Mediterranean will also remain a source of friction. The parties have often expressed their interest in reaching an agreement to reunite Cyprus, but there are big obstacles. They would have to reach mutual understandings on issues such as what will happen to the Turkish troops currently stationed in northern Cyprus, how they should compensate the people on both sides who lost their property after the division of the island, and how both Greek and Turkish Cypriots would be represented in government. Even if there was agreement on all these issues, each community would have to hold a referendum to ratify the deal. Until then, disputes over energy exploration in Cyprus' exclusive economic zone will continue.

The war in Syria is generating further strife between Turkey and the European Union. On March 15, the European Parliament, concerned about hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians, approved a motion asking for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the town of Afrin, where Turkey is targeting the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG). And on March 19, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that Turkey, Russia and Iran are supposed to be "aiming at de-escalating the military activities and not escalating them." Turkey, which sees crackdowns on Kurds at home and abroad as necessary for preventing the development of a Kurdish state within or near Turkey's borders, considered Mogherini's statements to be European support for Kurdish terrorism.

The March 26 summit is unlikely to lead to any concrete decisions on the future of EU-Turkey relations. After all, though Juncker and Tusk are the heads of the most important EU institutions, final foreign policy decisions are ultimately in the hands of EU member states — many of whom remain more than a little reluctant to partner with Turkey. However, a relationship based on pragmatism and cooperation on specific areas of common interest such as trade, migration or security is likely, though occasional political clashes will almost certainly continue. 

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