AKP rally, Istanbul, 1 August 2016. Photo: ESI/Kristof Bender

Red Lines for Turkey

Define clear standards. Assess them strictly

The EU should use the accession process more skilfully to slow the erosion of democratic standards in Turkey. To do so the EU needs to define clearly what EU standards are and to spell out clearly how far Turkey is from meeting them. The EU should define red lines that would lead to the end of the accession process. To make them effective it should draw them before they are crossed and with official support of all EU members.

ESI report: The Chapter Illusion – For honesty and clarity in EU-Turkey relations (15 May 2017)

The EU-Turkey statement shows that the EU and Turkey can co-operate when there is a joint interest. But what can the EU do in the face of politicised justice, human rights violations and disregard for basic principles of the rule of law? What actions might make a difference? It is easy to state what should be avoided: silence in the face of repression, certainly; cutting links to Turkey, obviously; drawing "red lines" which cannot be defended because the EU lacks the tools or the consensus to do so, of course.

The mechanism with most potential to have any influence remains Turkey's EU accession process. The European Commission's primary role in this process is to judge, to criticise, to assess and to compare. The process amounts to an invitation by Turkey to the EU to point out regularly where Turkey is falling short.

The basic problem with this process today is that it is incomprehensible. The transformative impact of the process is dependent on its ability to mobilise coalitions for change; yet the current EU-Turkey "negotiations" are baffling even to experts, to say nothing of the general public. For a good reason: there is no logic to many aspects of how this process is being handled.

To take one emblematic issue: why does the EU not open chapter 23 (on "Judiciary and fundamental rights") if it is concerned about the state of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Turkey? This is what members of the Turkish government keep asking. The conventional answer is: Cyprus and its veto. But this answer hides a much more important question: what if, due to some change of heart in Nicosia, chapter 23 were to be "opened" tomorrow?

Would the EU and Turkey then start "negotiating" over the rule of law and fundamental rights? How would such negotiations change the situation in Turkey for the better? At this moment, nobody can even say whether opening chapter 23 would be a gift or a punishment for the Turkish government; or what difference it might conceivably make to the lives of Turkish citizens. The same questions can be asked for every other chapter.

Instead of fruitless talk about "freezing" a process that most observers feel got stuck years ago, the EU should focus on explaining these realities to a broader public. A good start would be to talk less about chapters and more about EU standards and norms in different fields, and how far Turkey is from meeting these. The better the EU communicates this, the more likely it is to have a positive influence on the Turkish reform process. This ball is in the court of the EU.

It is not in the EU's interest for Turkey to stop reforming. It is not in the EU's interest at this moment to stop to criticise and to assess. It is not in the EU's interest to rule out today that Turkey will ever be able to meet EU standards under any future government. It is therefore not in the EU's interest to end the accession process. But it is vital to reform it in order to restore its credibility.

The EU can decide by unanimity to walk away, of course. Member states might conclude that it is hopeless even to continue to provide criticism and assessments. But this is a card the EU can play only once. ESI argues that the EU should commit itself to do this to dissuade Turkey from adopting the death penalty.

To "suspend" talks, if this means suspending the process of "opening chapters", would be meaningless, since this process is stuck already. To break off talks is different: it would end the process of drafting annual reports on progress; stop pre-accession funds; and reduce the number of people in Brussels and Ankara engaged in assessing Turkey in light of EU standards. This would have consequences. The EU can draw red lines: but it should draw them before they are crossed, and only when they enjoy strong enough support so that crossing them would mean automatic sanctions.

Both Turkey and the EU need to find a framework where sensitive issues can be discussed fruitfully. A reformed accession process provides such a framework. The key to such a process is clarity: it needs to be clear what EU standards are, how far Turkey is from meeting them and why it is useful for both sides to remain engaged in a dialogue on this. The EU needs a policy that is understood before it can have one that might be transformative.