Last week, Turkish leadership was in Europe for both a NATO summit in Brussels and talks with top EU officials. These have been trying times for Ankara’s relationships with its western neighbors, an unfortunate turn of events from the hopeful environment that ushered in Turkish-European relations in 2016.
A series of frustrations
Since the start of 2016, the EU-Turkey relationship has suffered a number of setbacks. In November 2016, the European Parliament voted in favor of a non-binding resolution to “freeze” EU membership talks with Turkey, a reaction to Turkey’s moves to shore up its national security in the aftermath of the violent July 15 coup attempt. At the same time, Turkey called out its European allies for their inadequate response to the coup attempt. Turkey also has grown increasingly frustrated with stalled progress toward visa-liberalization with the EU, something that was promised under the March 2016 EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement, as well as the slow actualization of the €3 billion in refugee assistance promised by the agreement, only 25 percent of which has actually been disbursed. Relations were again strained as a number of EU member countries banned Turkish politicians from campaigning to expat communities ahead of the April 16 constitutional referendum. Turkey has also been exasperated by Germany and Greece’s moves to block the extradition of suspected coup plotters.
A number of other disagreements were also in the headlines in the run-up to last week’s Brussels trip. Germany, the most influential country in the EU bloc, is in a spat with Turkey over access to Incirlik Air Base. Meanwhile, Turkey has ruffled feathers in Vienna by vetoing a partnership between NATO and Austria, a move motivated by Austria’s active opposition to Turkey’s bid for EU membership. This week, several EU countries, including major power players Germany and France, are trying to block Turkey from hosting the 2018 NATO summit, instead arguing that Belgium should have the honor.
Continued value of the partnership
Underneath the tense environment of political discourse, however, several areas of effective cooperation between Turkey and Europe remain. The pinnacle of these is the EU-Turkey refugee agreement, which has effectively slowed the humanitarian crisis stemming from irregular migration across the Mediterranean and Aegean from Turkey to Europe. The agreement promised Turkey €3 billion in assistance for hosting refugees as well as a kick-start to the country’s long stalled accession process along with upgrades to the relationship such as visa liberalization. Neither of these promises have yet come to fruition. However, Turkey’s President Erdogan signaled that the issue of visa-free travel may be back on the agenda following his meeting last week with EU counterparts.
Turkey walked away from its meetings last week with EU leaders with a new “12 month timetable for renewing relations.” All in all, the media billed the meetings as a “productive” step for EU-Turkey relations. Turkey again pushed that while it does not want to go down the path of an all-out break from the strong relationship it has forged with the EU under the AK Party, the EU should not take Turkey for granted and “the EU cannot see Turkey as a beggar.” Analysts have stated that Turkey is prepared to give Europe the space “to make things right” vis-à-vis its concerns with the relationship.
Another bright spot in Turkey-EU relations is their continued commitment to finding a solution to the Cyprus conflict. While talks on this issue have been stop and start since 2016, and appear to be stalling out, they have not collapsed outright. A continued and coordinated push for progress not only lays the ground toward further progress for Turkey’s accession but also for energy cooperation between Turkey and Europe, which is currently stalled by disputes over energy exploration around the divided island.
Expectations for the future
Going into the NATO Summit, Turkey signaled that it would press for more support from both EU member countries and the NATO alliance in the fight against terrorism on its eastern borders. Turkey is also looking for movement to upgrade its outdated customs union with the EU, a signal of Turkey’s commitment to enhancing its economic position in the world. President Erdogan has just completed an intense global trip pressing the same issue with other world leaders, including China and the United States.
In the wake of meeting with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the end of April, the Turkish Foreign Minister emphasized the possibility for goodwill between Ankara and Brussels. The meeting underscored, from the Turkish perspective, that the EU had “understood” its mistakes vis-à-vis Turkey and also that Turkey’s EU membership candidacy would continue even if new chapters were not immediately opened.
Such statements and meetings might lead to the understanding that the future of the EU-Turkey partnership is dependent on mutual good will between the partners. However, the real longevity of the partnership lies grounded in the indispensability of many of the programs that personify the European-Turkish alliance. The EU is Turkey’s largest import and export partner. Likewise, Turkey plays an important role in the European market, having risen to the bloc’s fifth largest trading partner. While good will can be destroyed by a series of disagreements, it is much harder for allies to extricate themselves from a trade partnership built and deepened by decades of negotiations, regulations, and success for both partners. It should not go without notice that, despite political tensions, the EU and Turkey appear to still be on track to overhaul their customs agreement. As long as trade relations continue to benefit both Turkey and the EU, a total fracturing of the relationship is unlikely.