Cyprus, refugees, 3-billion Euro, and Customs Union negotiations. What do these all have in common? They are all critical issues for Turkey’s stalled EU accession process, and all currently experiencing movement. This is not to say accession is around the corner, but rather an indication of the reality that the futures of Turkey and Europe remain intertwined.
Full EU accession for Turkey is not an inevitability, but there is every reason for both the EU and Turkey to be optimistic in 2016.
In November 2015, the EU and Turkey inked a joint Refugee Action Plan. The agreement will bring about joint strategies for tackling the ongoing migration crisis as well as a much needed jolt to Turkey’s stalled accession process. For Turkey, the plan promised access to 3 billion Euros of funding to tackle the ongoing refugee crisis, easier visa access for Turkish citizens, and a jumpstart to the country’s long stalled EU membership process. In return, Turkey committed to taking steps to stem the flow of refugees from its borders into Europe.
In the wake of the agreement, Turkey became more aggressive in detaining refugees planning to cross the Aegean Sea from Ayvacik to Lesbos. However, accusations began to fly from Europe regarding Turkey’s migration strategy. Tensions continued to escalate between the two neighbors as Italy moved last week to block the proposed 3 billion Euro of promised assistance to Turkey from becoming a reality. For its part, Turkey has announced new regulations allowing many of the nearly 2.5 million refugees within its borders to apply for work permits. The state is hopeful that this program will enable it to hold up its end of its bargain with Europe.
While Turkey continues to work toward providing as much assistance as it can to its refugee population, EU President Tusk has increased pressure on Turkey to further shore up its migration strategy, stating “We have no more than two months to get things under control.” Conversely, Germany has acknowledged that Turkey has “taken first steps” toward realization of its part of the Refugee Action Plan and acknowledged that the EU must also carry out its responsibilities under the agreement. A stark departure of Europe from its strategy of relying on Turkey as a floodgate to the EU is unlikely. However, continual infighting between EU members divided over asylum politics certainly stymies the tangibility of speed with which Turkey can expect to reap benefits from the agreement.
The year 2016 might just be the golden year for Cypriot reunification. Long considered a sticking point for Turkey’s EU accession, recent optimism surrounding peace negotiations brings simultaneous hope for freeing accession chapters held up by the conflict. On January 19th, the Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot Presidents made an unprecedented joint-address in Davos underscoring their commitment to reunification talks. The momentum building shows that real progress is on the horizon. This owes to a long awaited willingness from both Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, and a Turkey increasingly interested in solidifying its future with Europe.
Despite the stall of a formal accession process, Turkey has already made strides to integrate itself with the EU. The most obvious way is through the EU-Turkey Customs Union brokered in 1994. In the last 20 years, Turkey has become the EU’s sixth largest trading partner, and an important client for Turkey’s machinery, transport, and manufactured goods industries. In 2016, there is every indication that the two economies will further intertwine as the Customs Union is upgraded to include services, public procurement, and agriculture. Pursuing such reforms is essential for Turkey as Europe comes closer to agreeing on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States. Turkey’s Economy Minister Mustafa Elitas has set a goal for negotiations on revisions to the Customs Union agreement to be completed by the end of 2017. Economic benefits deriving from the enhancements will stimulate Turkey’s ongoing business reforms, which are beneficial to its domestic economy as well as for the the newly opened Accession Chapter 17 on economic and monetary policy.
Also on the horizon in 2016 will be the fast approaching February 18th EU-Turkey Summit, and talks for opening up to five additional accession chapters (with Chapters 23, 25, and 26 first on the list). Combined together, these developments bring attention to Turkey’s EU prospects in a way that it has not been in recent years. The Refugee Action plan brings the most immediately tangible benefit as Turkey continues to shelter vast numbers of refugees. While the resolution of the Cyprus conflict largely falls out of Turkey’s hands, if negotiations are successful Cyprus will likely be less inclined to block the opening of new accession chapters.
Finally, though not directly related to EU integration, the EU-Turkey Customs reunion remains the backbone of EU-Turkey relations. A renegotiated union will strengthen Turkey’s economic position under a TTIP agreement and further integrate European and Turkish economies. Pushing all of these factors is Turkey’s geostrategic significance, which should not be overlooked by the European community. Turkey remains the best partner for the EU to temper the flows of migrants to its shores. The ability for Turkey to be a positive economy under TTIP will enhance the economic strength of both the EU and Turkey (not to mention the United States). As trade ties expand, so do opportunities for enhanced bilateral relations between Turkey and member states. Full accession into the EU for Turkey is not an inevitability, but with the ball rolling on so many crucial pieces of the accession puzzle, there is every reason for both the EU and Turkey to be optimistic in 2016.