In this piece, our Advisory Board member, Ambassador Marc Pierini, lays out four steps that the EU and Turkey should contemplate in order to enhance their relationship in the short- and medium- term: (1) Modernize the EU-Turkey Customs Union, (2) Deepen the partnership on asylum and refugees, (3) Implement key EU programs to support Turkey’s modernization, and (4) Pursue dialogues in areas of mutual interest, including counterterrorism. A window of opportunity exists, but progress will very much depend on the stance the Turkish leadership adopts and the offer EU leaders can make to Turkey.
FOUR POSSIBLE WAYS FORWARD
Modernize the Customs Union
It is an inescapable fact that the EU represents the lion’s share of trade and tourism flows, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, and technology inputs into the Turkish economy. With the exception of the energy sector, which is dominated by imports from Russia and Iran as well as Russian investments, no country or region other than the EU has so far emerged as a key partner for Turkey’s exports or FDI inflows. It is therefore essential for Turkey to keep the EU-Turkey Customs Union alive, correct its flaws, and extend its coverage to agriculture and services. For its part, the EU should remedy the inherent unfairness of automatically imposing on Turkey the free-trade agreements that the union concludes with third countries without associating Ankara in the talks.
It is essential for Turkey to keep the EU-Turkey Customs Union alive, correct its flaws, and extend its coverage to agriculture and services.
Inevitably, negotiations on modernizing the customs union will include some degree of technical conditionality, which is already part of the current mechanism. That is because a level playing field will be required for the two partners in domains such as competition policy, public procurement, energy pricing, workers’ rights, and economic justice. This conditionality might be difficult to agree on, in particular because competition and public-procurement policies are political tools for Turkey’s ruling party. Recent political developments make it likely that the EU will also request a degree of political conditionality related to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
On December 21, 2016, the European Commission proposed to the EU Council of Ministers a draft negotiating mandate for modernizing the customs union, stressing that “modernising the Customs Union to reflect current EU-Turkey trade relations would bring substantial economic benefits for both partners.” If the mandate for the customs union’s modernization is handled swiftly in the council, negotiations could start in early 2018. This timeline, however, is itself a political issue. The EU could usefully hold parallel informal consultations with Turkey’s business organizations in the meantime.
Deepen Cooperation on Asylum and Refugees
The tail end of the €3 billion EU-Turkey refugee agreement should be implemented fully, to the benefit of Syrian refugees and host communities in a pacified context. At a political level, it is important that the Turkish leadership’s recurrent threats to forcefully send migrants to the EU should stop. Using the refugee deal as a tool to publicly denigrate the EU runs counter to the nature of the agreement, which reflects the fact that both partners face identical challenges and are dealing jointly with a massive humanitarian issue.
The EU-Turkey program in support of Syrian refugees is a major example of a strategic partnership, as helping refugees prepare for their future benefits both sides.
The EU-Turkey program in support of Syrian refugees is a major example of a strategic partnership, as helping refugees prepare for their future benefits both sides. The program also serves the legitimate needs of host communities in Turkey’s southeast. By all accounts, the implementation of the humanitarian part of the agreement is highly satisfactory for all agencies involved. It is important for Brussels and Ankara to reflect this positive reality at the political level.
Cooperation on refugees should include a number of additional elements. The two sides could work together on supporting displaced Syrians inside Syria, assuming the security and political conditions allow for this and that such activities are conducted in a politically neutral fashion. The EU and Turkey should launch a dialogue about refugees’ legal status in Turkey and the extent to which the legal protection of refugees in Turkey can be improved. And Brussels and Ankara should cooperate better on countering the trafficking of human beings by international criminal networks, especially from the Iranian border.
In addition, the EU should decide whether to issue a second tranche of three billion euros of assistance, which was discussed in March 2016, on the basis of a clear understanding of the methods of delivery and the target beneficiaries.
Implement Key Programs, Including on Human Rights
An important pillar of an EU-Turkey package should consist of the steady implementation – free of political influence – of programs that support Turkey’s multisector modernization and people-to-people activities, such as Erasmus+, the Jean Monnet scholarships, civil-society initiatives, and cultural projects. Implementing these programs in full will assume that the EU reaches a political understanding with Ankara about their long-term benefits for Turkey and hence the need to implement them without political motivations.
In addition or in parallel, the EU should use its independent instruments, such the European Endowment for Democracy, to implement autonomous programs on human rights, the rule of law, media freedom, and culture. This assumes that the EU is willing to provide these instruments with financial means commensurate with Turkey’s size.
Foster Dialogues and Counterterrorism Cooperation
Issues of mutual interest between Turkey and the EU call for reinforced dialogue and cooperation between equal partners in a number of fields. This avenue was briefly discussed during the May 25 meeting between Erdoğan, Juncker, and Tusk and was followed by high-level visits both ways in June. Beyond talks on the customs union, refugees, and implementation of programs, the main topics covered should be political dialogue, economic dialogue, the high-level energy dialogue, and Turkey’s participation in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.
The EU and Turkey should launch a dialogue about refugees’ legal status in Turkey and the extent to which the legal protection of refugees in Turkey can be improved.
The important political point is that these dialogues will happen outside the contentious framework of accession negotiations, where the logic is essentially that Turkey must align itself with EU norms. Even when Turkey’s genuine self-interest is to adopt and implement EU rules and standards in a given sector or policy, the one-way logic of the accession process might not always be the most propitious format to achieve such a result. Broader dialogues, by contrast, replace the logic of Turkey’s alignment with EU norms and standards with the rationale of a conversation between equal partners. However, politically, these dialogues should not be construed as a way for Turkey to evade any discussion with the EU on the rule of law. This would run counter to the views of most parliaments in the EU.
In addition, consultations on counterterrorism should be reinforced with the EU counterterrorism coordinator and interested member states, because Turkey and EU countries are facing the same threats from the self-proclaimed Islamic State and similar groups. Also at issue will be the activities of the PKK in Europe, which rank high on the Turkish agenda with the EU.
THE WIDER POLITICAL CONTEXT
From a European political perspective, the steps suggested above constitute the most favorable and realistic avenues at this stage. For such a package to move forward, it will be crucial to create the proper political atmosphere. Symbolic measures would go a long way to ease tensions. Ankara should consider freeing the democratically elected HDP members of parliament, journalists, and academics currently being held pending trial, often without documented charges or access to lawyers. (Two writers were recently released.) A clear statement at the political level to renounce any attempt to bring back the death penalty, an idea repeatedly floated by Turkey’s president, would also signal a political will to start a rapprochement with Europe.
Programs such as Erasmus+, the Jean Monnet scholarships, civil-society initiatives, and cultural projects, should be consistently implemented and be free of political influence.
It is doubtful whether the Turkish leadership can take such steps in the current domestic political context. Yet, they would be critical to restore Europeans’ trust in Turkey’s intentions for the future.
Concerning the accession negotiations themselves, the EU’s clear and principled position will not change: membership remains open under the preexisting conditions, so a tangible and measurable return by Turkey to a rule-of-law architecture compatible with EU standards would be necessary to rekindle the accession dynamics.
From a wider perspective, the development of EU-Turkey relations in the short and medium term is not entirely independent from other events in the diplomatic arena. Turkey is at odds with the United States and Germany on various aspects of the operations of the anti–Islamic State coalition. A pacified relationship with the EU would benefit from less hostile language and a more cooperative attitude from Ankara.
For such a package to be agreed on, a calmer political narrative from Ankara would help restore EU leaders’ trust.
Similarly, if the much-touted deal for Turkey to purchase Russian S-400 air-defense missiles were to become a reality, it would mean that Russia would have placed a major weapons system at the core of Turkey’s defense architecture – a diplomatic achievement for Moscow given the size of the Turkish Armed Forces in NATO. The decision to install state-of-the-art Russian missiles in Turkey, even as a standalone system, would be unprecedented. Such a development would not be taken lightly in European capitals.
Finally, the Brexit negotiations and the UK’s future position vis-à-vis the EU in terms of trade – on questions such as access to the EU single market and customs union – may have an influence on the future shape of relations between the EU and Turkey.
For its own domestic motives, the Turkish leadership has chosen a path on issues such the constitution, secularism, societal questions, and foreign policy that is leading Turkey away from the European standards it had long fought to adopt. The method used to implement these changes has proved less and less democratic.
The EU-Turkey relationship will in any event remain strategic in many respects. Implementing the four components outlined above to enhance that relationship should be the most pressing priority for both sides. For such a package to be agreed on, a calmer political narrative from Ankara would help restore EU leaders’ trust.
In the longer run, the bases for a deeper political alliance through EU membership remain as they have always been. It will be up to Turkey’s leaders, at some point in the future, to return to their earlier ambitions.
* This article has been shortened with the author's permission. It was originally published by Carnegie Europe. For the full original article, click here.