Increasingly sour rhetoric between Turkey and the European Union has contaminated the very question of Turkey’s status as an EU-candidate country. On November 24, a majority of the European Parliament voted in favor of a non-binding resolution to “freeze” membership talks with Turkey. Within the framework of the European Parliament, such resolutions are passed as an expression of political desire for action on a given area. Thus, while the resolution did not formally halt negotiations between Turkey and the EU, it set forward a path for the December EU Summit to vote on taking such action. The body billed the measure as “a temporary halt of negotiations,” that “would entail that no new negotiating chapters be opened and no new initiatives be taken in relation to Turkey’s EU Negotiation Framework.” The Turks, for their part, chose to disregard the resolution, calling it “null and void” and a breach of “European values.”
This perilous development in the EU-Turkey relationship is ill-timed. The EU’s move has pushed the already weakened EU-Turkey refugee agreement in a precarious position. In response to the European Parliament vote, Turkey’s president criticized the EU for “not keeping its word,” on the parameters of its refugee agreement. He went on to say, “If you go farther, those border gates will be open. You should know that.”
Both Turkey and the EU seem to be rushing to the brink of a total breakdown in the relationship. Just days before the vote on the symbolic freeze of Turkey’s candidacy, a group of EU lawmakers canceled a trip to Turkey. Ankara had refused a meeting with one of the group, the Dutch socialist Kati Piri, who has been vocal against Turkey’s security consolidations in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt. The discord between Ankara and the delegation is indicative not only of the tension in the relationship, but also in the fruitlessness of attempts to bridge differences in favor of keeping the relationship on track.
The cancellation of the delegation’s trip came on the heels of another, higher profile attempt to rediscover common ground in the relationship. Earlier that week German Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier was dispatched by the Merkel government to discuss the future of the refugee agreement as well as to stabilize troubled ties between Berlin and Ankara. Steinmeier’s visit was also a follow up of an official meeting of the 28 EU foreign ministers in Brussels to discuss the future of Turkey’s candidacy. Steinmeier afterwards commented, “We cannot decide for the government in Ankara whether they will slam the door to the EU and turn away from the West. That is Ankara’s responsibility.”
At this juncture, the decision weighing most heavily on Turkey’s future with the EU is whether or not it moves forward with plans to reinstate capital punishment. In 2004, Turkey banned capital punishment in order to comply with regulations put forward for EU membership. Steinmeier has dubbed the reinstatement of capital punishment in Turkey a “red line” for the EU. Other EU leaders are less hardened against Turkey’s possible reinstatement of capital punishment. British foreign minister Boris Johnson said, “We [the EU] should not push Turkey into a corner, we should not overreact in a way that is against our collective interests.” Turkey’s decision to discuss reintroduction of the death penalty is a direct result of the July 15 coup attempt which prompted public support for such an initiative. The AK Party alone does not have enough parliamentary votes to approve the measure. However, recent signals from the opposition MHP indicate that its Chairman Devlet Bahceli might be willing to work with the AK Party on the issue.
Turkey has responded to the EU’s hesitancy about the future if its candidate status in kind, “What are we to expect from the European Union that kept Turkey at its gates for 53 years? Let’s not kid ourselves; we will cut our own umbilical cord,” President Erdogan has remarked. Turkey has hinted at the possibility of putting forward a referendum to the Turkish people on the future of its status as a candidate country. Ankara has repeatedly found itself on the verge of breaking not only with the refugee agreement, but also with the entire endeavor of EU candidacy. Ankara has been frustrated as the EU drags its heels on granting visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, the pinnacle national benefit Turkey negotiated in return for increasing its share of the refugee burden. The reasons the EU has refrained from implementing visa-free travel have been varied, and include issues such as the integration of biometric passports and questions over Turkey’s terrorism laws. Upon the announcement of European Parliament’s intention to vote on freezing talks with Turkey, President Erdogan pronounced, “Whatever the result is, in our eyes, this vote has no value,” before continuing, “This country’s [Turkey] struggle for its stability and future won’t be interrupted by [European legislators’] raising and lowering their hands.”
The next move for the EU in determining Turkey’s fate as an EU candidate country will come at the December 15-16 European Union summit meeting. At this juncture, member states will vote on a formal move to suspend or cancel accession negotiations. Although freezing negotiations received overwhelming support in the European Parliament resolution, it has not necessarily translated into support from EU member countries who will make the ultimate decision. So far, Austria has been the main national backer of freezing membership talks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that she does not expect the EU to open any new negotiations with Turkey, but has thus far not endorsed a move to formally freeze negotiation. Beyond the upcoming vote on Turkey’s candidate status, European Parliament President Martin Schulz also signaled that the EU will be discussing the option of imposing economic sanctions on Turkey at its December meeting. The move would come as a blow to Turkey, which has been pursuing an update to its Customs Union agreement with the EU.
For now, EU diplomats have indicated that they will “make sure we [Turkey and the EU] listen to each other,” and keep communication channels open. However, if current rhetoric between Turkey and the EU is indicative of the tone of future discussions, it is hard to see how communication will improve. Certainly, it seems that the prospect of any forward progress in negotiations is bleak. As Turkey and the EU continue to exchange harsh barbs vis-a-vis both Turkey’s accession and the future of the refugee agreement, it is likely that the downward spiral in the partnership will continue.