11 November 2010
Turkey and the EU – A very Special Relationship
This week the European Commission published its annual progress report on Turkey's road to EU accession. The latest update – part of ESI's European Transformation and Enlargement Project supported by Erste Foundation in Vienna – appears against the background of a growing fear – or even expectation – in Turkey as well as in the EU, that the accession process, launched with such fanfare in 2005, is heading for a disastrous failure.
A new ESI report
argues that this fear is misplaced. Today's relationship between Turkey and the EU is like a Catholic marriage: divorce is not an option for either side. The only question is whether the couple will be a happy one. There is also only one special partnership that is acceptable to Turkey and to the vast majority of EU members. It is the one they have today – an open-ended accession process.
The report challenges a number of conventional wisdoms on the Turkish accession process. One is that the process is heading for disaster (the train wreck scenario). Another is that it will die with a whimper, as Turkey and the EU run out of chapters of the acquis to negotiate (the natural death scenario). A third is that European prejudice and rising Islamophobia doom the whole undertaking. Finally, there is the idea that Turks themselves have lost interest in carrying out reforms, and are beginning to see a better future outside of the EU.
There are in fact only two ways for the current talks to come to an end (short of eventual accession): one is for Turkey to give up and walk away from the negotiating table; the other is for the EU member states to vote on a suspension. Even if Turks might be losing faith in the prospect of accession in the near future, they are very unlikely to turn their back on the process, with all the many concrete benefits it has delivered them, particularly in the economic sphere. At the same time, a scenario in which opponents of Turkish accession inside the EU succeed in suspending the negotiations is equally unlikely – not only because it is not in their interests, but also because it is not in their power.
Barring a major crackdown on minorities or freedom of expression, a return to the human rights abuses of the 1990s or a military coup, the EU cannot unilaterally stop a process to which it has committed itself under the Negotiating Framework. Here, all the cards are in the hands of Turkey's politicians.
Some argue that recent growth – in 2010 Turkey's GDP is estimated to grow by 8 percent, the fastest in Europe – shows that Turkey "no longer needs the EU." This is grandstanding. Turkey is still one of the poorest countries in Europe (and the poorest member of the OECD). Most importantly, it has had periods of high growth before only to see its efforts to catch up with Europe brought to a halt by instability. The pattern of boom-bust development since World War II is too recent for a suspension in accession talks not to unnerve serious investors.
If accession talks are unlikely to be suspended, will they die a "natural death" instead? The tortuously slow pace with which the EU negotiations have progressed, combined with the sense that new obstacles await, has produced fears that the accession process might soon run out of steam. Then Turkey and the EU "will have nothing left to talk about." There can be no doubt that the inability to open chapters is contributing to intense frustration not only among Turkish politicians (and negotiators) but also among those who work on Turkish accession in the EU institutions. But what would actually happen if Turkey and the EU run out of chapters to open by the end of 2011?
In fact, it would not mean an end to the accession process. The reason is simple: the process is about more than the negotiations chapters themselves. There would still be regular meetings at all levels between Turkish and European experts. There would still be regular meetings under the Turkey-EU Association Council. There would still be work on all the (very demanding) chapters already opened. There would still be regular assessments by EU officials for the annual progress report. There would still be significant (and increasing) EU pre-accession assistance.
Looking at the actual behaviour of the EU since 1999, one could also come to a counterintuitive conclusion: that Turkey has often been given the benefit of the doubt. Rather than discriminated, it has often been favoured. In 1999 it was given candidate status despite failing to meet the EU's human rights criteria. In 2004, despite only "sufficiently" meeting the Copenhagen political criteria, it was allowed to open accession talks – the only candidate country to be allowed such leeway. In Turkey's case, a positive trend, rather than the actual fulfilment of conditions, has seemed to suffice. Even Greece has so far refrained from holding Turkey's EU accession process hostage to the resolution of bilateral disputes (as it has done with regard to its northern neighbour, Macedonia).
But why should Turkey go ahead with adopting the EU acquis if it cannot be sure that it will actually be admitted? After all, reforms in areas like public procurement and environment are often costly, either politically or in terms of investments required. Why go on? The question, quite simply, is the Turks' to answer. Most of the acquis, even when it comes with a large price tag, is in Turkey's general interest (modernising its economy and public administration). Some of it is not. Bearing this in mind, Turkey can play it a la carte until relevant chapters are opened, putting cost-intensive or inconvenient reforms on the back burner while making rapid progress in other areas.
For all these reasons we confidently predict that, a decade from now, the accession process will still be ongoing.
For all the exaggerated and misplaced accusations of the EU's discriminatory policies vis-a-vis Turkey, some are well-founded. One example concerns Cyprus. The other is the EU's decision to deny Turkish citizens a clear road forward towards visa free travel to Europe.
Of all the candidate and potential candidate countries, Turkey remains the only one today without an official EU roadmap towards visa free travel. Although their countries have not even begun accession negotiations, Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins have been travelling to the EU without a visa since late 2009. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania have finally obtained the same goal this week, having completed the required ambitious agenda of internal security reforms outlined in the Commission's "visa roadmap".
Turkey, five years into its accession talks, has yet to be offered the same. Until recently there was a good reason – the absence of an EU-Turkey readmission agreement – for withholding a visa roadmap from Turkey. It is only now that protracted negotiations, launched in 2003, have been concluded. A text is now almost finalised. It still needs to be approved by the EU member states and then initialled, signed and ratified before it can enter into force.
For the Western Balkans, the readmission agreements were a stepping stone. Once they were signed, the EU launched a visa liberalisation process with the five Western Balkans countries, opening visa dialogues and handing out the visa roadmaps a few months later.
What follows from this is clear. At a time when Turkish citizens are desperate to see new signs of commitment and good will from Europe, the EU must offer Turkey a visa facilitation agreement and a roadmap for lifting visa restrictions as soon as the readmission agreement is implemented.
A visa roadmap would represent a politically attractive agenda for reform. It would play to the shared interest of both the EU and the candidate state – to improve cooperation in the fight against organised crime and illegal migration.
In the Balkans the roadmaps have managed to deliver what they promised and – thanks to the increased cultural exchange triggered by visa-free travel – to sustain the pro-European dynamic in the region. There is no doubt that it would have a similarly positive impact on Turkish-EU relations.
Autumn is always a busy time, also for ESI analysts.
This October we presented our research in Belgrade: The march of Balkan history? (5 October 2010), commemorating the 10 anniversary of the fall of Slobodan Milosevic; in Budva at a strategic planning seminar on South-East European Integration (8 October 2010); in Visby at a brainstorming organised by Swedish foreign minister Carl Bild about Modernisation and European Integration in the Eastern Neighbourhood (15 October 2010); in Bratislava, at an event at the Slovak Foreign Ministry which ESI co-organised about EU Enlargement in the Balkans in 2011 - Make Not Break (21 October 2010).
In Tirana we reflected on Albania 20 years after: Rethinking Democracy and State in Albania (22 October 2010) In Brussels took part in an ECFR meeting with Catherine Ashton, Javier Solana and others to discuss the future of EU foreign policy. ESI in Tel Aviv took part in a Conference on peace operations and state building (31 October 2010).
This week ESI is organising a public presentation on the problem of visa for Kosovo in Berlin with Kosovo Minister of Interior Bajram Rexhepi, We also bring together our advisory board for the Schengen White List visa project in Berlin, chaired by Giuliano Amato and including former interior ministers Otto Schily and Charles Clarke among others.
If you want to be kept updated on our activities you can follow us on the ESI Facebook page.
You can also visit the Rumeli Observer Blog. New entries in October discuss multiculturalism in the Balkans, Turkey and Germany, in the past and in the future: Paradise Lost? From Smyrna to Skopje to Berlin (part 1), Obama, Wulff and Christians as enemies of Turkey, "Multikulti is dead" and other ideas which are bad for the Balkans, The march of Balkan history? – Gerald Knaus 5th October presentation and A pledge to Zoran.
A few weeks ago we also sent out a special newsletter about the Great Debate in Germany on Turkey and Turks. This newsletter is now also available in Turkish.
As always, we hope that some of these different publications will interest you.
Many best wishes,