By Çınar Özen*
Turkey-EU relations have unfortunately been stuck in debates over the ‘easing of visa restrictions’ for Turkish citizens to a limited extent and for specified periods. This issue has been brought to the forefront of Turkey-EU relations without any consideration of the various difficulties that would be created by the internal developments within the EU from such a deal. The EU, as one may have easily predicted, has opted to approach the matter from an utterly narrow perspective, by linking the fate of negotiations to that of others which bear no relevance to the essential debate here. The European Parliament and the domestic public of individual EU countries have begun to discuss the issue on political grounds.
Negotiations over the issue have gained additional dimensions that far exceed the original scope of discussions among the European and Turkish policy-makers alike. As a result, we are now confronted with a crisis that is not only unwarranted but also dangerous. We can assess the current situation as an ultimate failure on the part of both the EU and Turkey. To our regret, this failure has coincided with an ill-fated period. Now we have to deal with the repercussions of a truly unnecessary political crisis when we could have capitalized on the existing political context instead, as it seems more conducive to the cultivation of Turkey-EU relations. The situation is genuinely disheartening.
Agenda items that affect relations
It is the successive waves of immigrants that have been troubling the EU more than any other issue in recent years. Millions of people from all across the globe, but particularly from the Middle East and North Africa, are currently amassed along the EU’s external and maritime borders, waiting to immigrate to major European capitals. The adverse political circumstances surrounding these regions further aggravate the urgency of addressing the issue on the EU’s part. The immigrant crisis has been fueling anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and Euroscepticism inside the EU. Far-right and populist political movements that aim to abolish the EU are on the rise on the political stage all across Europe. This explosive problem bears the potential to endanger EU’s future on a fundamental level in time. Therefore, the EU’s fate will, in a sense, depend on the implications of how it reacts to the migrant crisis. In this respect, governments that wish to preserve the EU’s power and integrity felt obliged to engage with Turkey. However, we have managed to handle the whole matter in an extremely narrow-minded manner – indeed we even failed to support as shallow a case as ours. Thus, our relationship has been thrown into a grave crisis at an otherwise opportune time when the refugee and migrant crises have already compelled the EU to approach Turkey without much reserve. When I say we have “succeeded at” ruining this opportunity, I intend to point out the relative difficulty of antagonizing the EU at a moment of unique opportunity as such. Turkey must be salvaged from this diplomatic wreckage, because it seems as though the repercussions of this crisis may not be able to be contained within the narrow limits of Turkey-EU relations.
To get a full grasp of the issue, one needs to take into account the rapid pace of negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The task of establishing a new common ground on which Turkey-EU relations can be revitalized takes on new significance as TTIP negotiations proceed. The EU has been pushing forward in TTIP negotiations with the United States since July 2013. No doubt this agreement will exert tremendous influence over global trade. It is projected to generate an extra economic capacity worth 300 billion euros. The largest and most influential economic bloc in the world is about to be formed. This bloc has a political aspect as well, which will readjust the balance of power on a global scale.
Turkey has been a close economic partner of Europe for a long time, and it has been formally incorporated into the EU’s common market since the Customs Union came into force on January 1, 1996. Its partnership with the EU and the Customs Union allow Turkey to take part in this emergent trade bloc while exacerbating the risk of exclusion. However, being admitted to this bloc requires serious and targeted effort on the part of Ankara. Admission to the TTIP can by no means be taken for granted. First and foremost, it necessitates diplomatic agility along with political skills. Ankara’s possible failure to exhibit the necessary skills at such a critical juncture and board the TTIP train will surely raise the specter of further regression in mutual relations; thus, our economic partnership and formal ties as embodied in the Customs Union will be imperiled. Going one step further, potential political consequences may even undermine Turkey’s strategic standing as a NATO member. In that regard, one cannot but warn against the imminent danger of political isolation that should be expected to follow economic exclusion from the emergent Transatlantic bloc.
Another critical development which ranks high on the EU’s agenda and will bear considerable influence over Turkey’s relations with the EU is the upcoming referendum that is scheduled to take place on June 23 in the United Kingdom and will decide whether the country will remain a member of the European Union or leave. In the referendum, which is popularly referred as the ‘Brexit’ vote, I do not expect the British electorate to opt for staying in the EU. Britain has already extracted all the concessions it could from the EU by using the upcoming vote as leverage. It has particularly succeeded at staving off strict EU regulations concerning budget discipline, the Eurozone, and the finance industry. Still, the upcoming referendum bears utmost importance for the EU’s future. Washington also wants the U.K. to stay in the EU for the sake of the Transatlantic pact that it envisions. Against such a backdrop, London is mulling over a midway solution whereby its economic sovereignty is balanced with a certain degree of allegiance to Brussels. This indicates the emergence of a new system entailing diverse types of membership in the EU and, thus, a rare opportunity for Ankara. Turkey’s full membership in the foreseeable future is obviously a remote possibility. It is a different matter whether Ankara would be willing to become a party to the growing problems within the EU. Evolving conditions that normally apply to both parties alike should not be allowed to engender a unilateral policy of exclusion with detrimental consequences for Turkey. The genuine model that the U.K. is currently working to improve may also prove useful in the case of Turkey’s future admission to the EU.
Can Turkey and the EU turn over a new leaf?
The Association Agreement between Turkey and the European Union, the historical roots of which go back to early 1960s, has since provided a solid foundation for mutual relations. What is crucial for Turkey is to be able to build a lasting edifice on this foundation. The migrant crisis which the EU is struggling hard to resolve plays to Turkey’s hand. Ironically, the linking of this issue with that of visa liberalization has “allowed” us to “beat the odds” and deliver a brand new crisis instead of a much-expected breakthrough. Such is the direct result of a potentially fatal and hollow political approach since the migrant issue could have otherwise been used as a rare trump card over negotiations with the EU. The government is faced with the risk of turning future opportunities into crises should it insist on similar policies.
Turkey-EU relations will continue to be based on a vision of partnership, as embodied in the Customs Union. Nevertheless, this is a strong and dynamic foundation which can be upgraded to a significant extent. It is possible to push the relationship further into other policy fields and extend its scope by making inroads into alternative EU programs if we manage to capitalize on the favorable political circumstances which I’ve tried to explain in the above paragraphs. Efforts to revise the Customs Union should be coordinated in light of these parameters. Against such a backdrop, Turkey’s inclusion in the emerging Transatlantic bloc, which is still an achievable objective at his point in time, should be ensured by responsible policy-makers. The EU and the U.S. would prefer to tailor a feasible model that incorporates Turkey into their shared vision. Thereby, Turkey can get its foot in the door and mend the fences with its Western partners. Acting the other way around would be a great mistake that can even entail complete failure.
All in all, we are going through a critical process. The complex interplay between the various dynamics that are mentioned above will determine the future of not only the EU but the nature of Transatlantic relations at large. It is of utmost importance that relations with our Western partners are handled adeptly, which requires the mobilization of all political and diplomatic resources available in the years ahead. The results that are to be obtained in the process will play a crucial role in steering the future of Turkey’s overall relations with the West, including long-term repercussions. Therefore, no sooner than we take off our blinkers and drop our obsession with a simplistic reading of the entire course of events in relation to a specific agenda item, such as the lifting of visa requirements, can the enduring impediments to progress be fully eliminated. A potential crisis that will break out within such a narrow policy framework may engender way deeper and longer lasting problems in multiple fields of utmost concern for Turkey, particularly along the Ankara-Brussels line.
*Çınar Özen is a faculty member at the University of Ankara, Faculty of Political Sciences.
Turkish version of this article was first published at Analist monthly journal’s June 2016 issue.