In the referendum of April 16, 2017, 51.3% of Turkish voters approved of proposed amendments to the constitution, which will diminish checks and balances on executive power. The referendum did not bring Turkey politically closer to the European Union – it worsened a relationship that was already deteriorating. Back when the EU condemned the response from the Turkish government to a failed coup d’état in June 2016, Turkey responded by threatening to repeal the migration deal signed months earlier.

The ideological and political differences between the EU and Turkey have always been there, but there was a time when the two shared a common interest in building a closer alliance through Turkish EU membership – an aspiration that seems more distant than ever. But the EU cannot afford to let Turkey cozy up to other, more authoritarian players in the current geopolitical climate.

An unfinished affair since 1963

Accession talks between the EU and Turkey started in 2005, after a long process of gradual integration. Turkey signed an association agreement with the European Economic Community in 1963, and became a  candidate for EU membership in 1999. To this day, only 16 out of 35 chapters have been opened for negotiation, while only one chapter has been concluded.

In 1970, a 25-year long time frame was estimated for  the completion of a Customs Union, built on the gradual removal of trade restrictions on Turkish exports, while Turkey would start aligning its external trade policy to that of the EU. Despite Turkey’s struggle in upholding its promise of economic liberalisation on several occasions, a Customs Union entered into force in 1995, which laid the foundation for future accession talks. Furthermore, in spite of the initial fears that the Turkish economy would suffer under the Customs Union, Turkey today has an industry that is almost fully integrated with that of the EU and is the only non-member country to have a functioning Customs Union with the EU in place prior to accession.

When Erdogan came to power in 2002, EU membership seemed attainable, and serious efforts were  made to realise this aim. The death penalty was abolished following the EU’s demand. The imposition of civil control over the military was a criteria which coincided with Erdogan’s own political aspirations, in a country where the military had traditionally seen itself as the “guardian” of Atatürks secular state, and had managed to overthrow elected governments in the past. Structural adjustment reforms were undertaken to boost the economy. This allowed accession talks to finally begin in 2005, but they came to a halt due to the fact that the Turkish government could not keep the promise of not discriminating against EU members without a proper solution to the Cyprus problem.

Even if  the Customs Union has brought the EU and Turkey economically closer, politically they have drifted further apart. In 1923, the founding fathers of the republic looked for a source of inspiration to reform society, but  more conservative-oriented governments have dominated Turkish politics since 1950. When the AKP (Justice and Development Party) assumed power in 2002, the relevance of conservatism and religion in Turkish politics increased.

The weakening of a partnership

Long before the referendum took place, the relationship between EU and Turkey had evolved into more of a partnership guided by common interests rather than ideological similarities and shared values. Ankara and Brussels have remained bound to each other by economic and strategic interests. The EU is Turkey’s largest export market, representing 44.5% of its exports. The Customs Union agreement is being reviewed to include agriculture and services as well. Another factor up for consideration is the possibility of Turkish nationals travelling Visa-free into the EU.

Needless to say, this year saw some serious strains on the partnership. In the wake of the military coup, Turkey expressed its disappointment with the lack of support from the EU on what was considered an attack on a democratically-elected government. In the meantime, the Turkish government made several political u-turns that the EU could not ignore. Erdogan’s proposal to re-introduce the death penalty, as well as the severe restrictions on media freedom and persecution of political opponents, undermined the little faith that the EU still had regarding Turkish commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Mr. Erdogan, the same leader who during the early years of his incumbency made efforts to move closer to the EU politically, has spent the last decade reversing his own progress.

The constitutional changes that were agreed upon in the referendum will bring the nation closer to an authoritarian regime, diminishing the chances of Turkey meeting the political criteria required for EU membership. Meanwhile, among the Turkish electorate, Erdogan is portraying the EU as the superpower that has kept them waiting for 54 years for membership. Interest from both sides is fading.


A not so unified union

In the midst of EU-Turkish developments, it is easy to forget that over the last five years, there has also been a deterioration of relations between EU member states, which complicates the process of integrating new members into the club.

Scepticism over enlargement is strong: 52% of Europeans oppose it. Since 1995, the EU has gone from 12 to 28 member states. The unsettled dispute in Cyprus not only slowed the progress of accession talks, but its accession to the EU in 2004 was perceived by Turkey as support for Greek cypriot leadership. When Cyprus became a member, it was also able to block progress on Turkish accession by vetoing such decisions. Critics have argued that the decision to allow Cyprus to become a EU member before a settlement with Turkey was premature.

While enlargement was not unproblematic, there has been an increase in Euroscepticism in several member states. It is nothing new to say that populism is gathering momentum across the continent, and the UK’s decision to leave the union was a clear consequence of the failure to create a European identity and a shared vision among all European citizens. In today’s climate, it is difficult to see how a union that is currently experiencing difficulties in keeping its own members together, could be able to integrate a new member that stands even further adrift from the union economically and politically.


According to Marc Pierini from Carnegie Europe, the economic, financial and technological relationship with Turkey is not likely to suffer unless Turkey wants it to. However, aligning itself with European political standards probably no longer makes sense for the Turkish government. Even if Turkey wishes to continue the accession talks, it no longer fulfills the Copenhagen criteria which are necessary for membership. They include stability of institutions for guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law and human rights; a functioning market economy; and the institutional and administrative capacity to implement the acquis and take on the obligations of membership.

There are certainly some cons to breaking accession talks with Turkey, notably that the negotiating process itself created incentives for modernisation. Furthermore, without the prospect of one day becoming a full EU member, it is likely that Turkey is going to look elsewhere for building partnerships with other countries that share their values. While the EU should (and will) not compromise on its core values, it is vital to find a solution that is both realistic and keeps Erdogan from teaming up with other, not-so-democratic friends. Bilateral trade between Turkey and China rose from 1 billion USD in 2002, to 27 billion USD in 2017. Turkey is openly considering joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Eurasian cooperation alternative to the EU in economic, political and security issues.

Strategically, the EU could keep accession as distant, yet not impossible aim – serving as an incentive for Turkey to reverse recent developments. In the meantime, a new proposal with an upgrading of the current partnership in the following areas seems to be the most realistic scenario:

Customs Union:

The current partnership that exists between Ankara and Brussels is predominantly economic. The European Commission proposed to extend the areas covered by the Customs Union to include agricultural products, services and public procurement as well. The natural next step after a Customs Union is integration with the EEA , the single market area which allows the free movement of goods, people, services and capital. However, for this to be possible, the levels of economic development and regulation with the EU have to be similar, which is why the option has never been seriously considered.

Association Agreement:

If talks are abandoned, there could be an updating of the current association agreement between the EU and Turkey, which sets cooperation framework in different fields. According to Guy Verhofstadt, MEP of the ALDE group of the European Parliament, the partnership must be re-evaluated in a new proposal and association agreement with intensified cooperation in trade, strengthening Turkish civil society, as well as upgrading the Customs Union. The possibility of Visa-free travel for Turkish nationals is also an area of interest for Turkey. Discussions have also taken place regarding the possibility of offering Turkey a privileged partnership with a special status similar to that of the UK after negotiations to leave the EU have been concluded.

Security and Migration

The migration deal between Turkey and the EU has been heavily criticised for not fully respecting refugees’ rights. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that for the EU to be able to handle the current influx of refugees, some sort of cooperation with transit countries has to be established. The possibility to apply for asylum from embassies abroad could be explored, alongside a strategy for preventing foreign fighters from reaching Syria through Turkey. Both the EU and Turkey are NATO members which provides a forum for cooperation on security issues.

All of the above alternatives are possible, although some will require greater effort and political will. Most importantly, the EU must respond quickly in offering a new proposal with tangible and attractive incentives for Ankara. If accession talks are  frozen, it must be made clear that there are some principles that the EU simply cannot compromise, but that the door could be re-opened if Turkey chooses this path. In the current geopolitical climate, Turkey is too important a strategic partner to be isolated.

A Way Forward

If the current situation had presented itself ten years ago, things might have been different. Xenophobic and populist movements had yet to become so popular. The EU was being enlarged, not drifting apart from within. Donald Trump was not the US president. Vladimir Putin had not annexed Crimea, and despite being authoritarian, was yet to show his most aggressive side. Today, the EU cannot afford for relations with another authoritarian neighbour to become more hostile. In the best of cases, Turkey will show some level of commitment to the partnership by freeing journalists, opposition leaders and others that were illegitimately detained during the state of emergency, as well as revoking its statements on reintroducing the death penalty.

It should not be forgotten that a large part of Turkish society has not abandoned the progressive values that the republic’s founding father Atatürk established. After all, 48.59% of the Turkish population voted against the constitutional amendments. Deepening cooperation with civil society, strengthening media freedom and protecting human rights activists should all be priorities to the EU, no matter how their relationship with Turkey continues.

Although the future remains uncertain, the prospect of Turkish EU membership seems more distant than ever. The current geopolitical climate, the need for a safe and organized administration of refugee flows in accordance with international law, makes Turkey a vital partner and one that should not be isolated. How the future relationship will emerge remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: these relations are far from what people expected after the confirmation of Turkey’s candidate status in 1999.


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