A new EU framework for Turkey?

For the record, Turkey is still an EU candidate. However, a parallel framework has emerged after the EU summit of March 25-26, which treats Turkey as a third party rather than a candidate for membership. If Turkey deescalates in the East-Med, continues talking to Greece, and participates in new Cyprus talks, then the EU won’t bother about the rule of law, human rights, and political prisoners.

For the record, Turkey is still an EU candidate. As a result, the official framework for bilateral relations is the membership negotiation process laid out by the acquis communautaire and its 35 chapters, which seeks to align Turkey’s policies with EU legislation. Within this framework, the focus is primarily on the domestic situation, including “judiciary and fundamental rights” (Chapter 23) and “justice, freedom and security” (Chapter 24).

For example, Chapter 23 states that “the establishment of an independent and efficient judiciary is of paramount importance.” But only the European Parliament treats Turkey this way. European Parliament rapporteur for Turkey Nacho Sanchez Amor and the head of the joint parliamentary committee Sergey Lagodinsky often criticize the lack of the rule of law, human rights issues, prison conditions, and concerns over the situation of political prisoners such as Osman Kavala.

However, since March 25, a parallel framework has emerged, pursued by the Council of the European Union and its 27 member states. In this new framework, Turkey is no longer a candidate, but a third kind of country, with which the EU wants close relations and cooperation in the fields of migration, security, and energy. Turkey’s domestic situation is mentioned, but doesn’t imply conditionality. It is a kind of textual decoration. The conditionality still exists, but now in regard to foreign policy issues.

If Turkey does three things, the EU has three offers, which now have nothing to do with membership: 1. Turkey should continue to deescalate in the Eastern Mediterranean, this includes a stop of exploratory activities by Turkish ships such as the Oruc Reis; 2. Turkey should continue exploratory talks with Greece; 3. Turkey should participate in the Cyprus talks, which will restart on April 27 in Geneva.

To comply with these three issues is relatively easy for Turkey.
On the first point, Turkey doesn’t want confrontation in the East-Med. Rather, it wants to be included in regional dynamics, such as the East-Med Gas Forum, from which it was excluded. Turkey fears being left out of developments by hostile countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Greece, or the UAE. With Egypt and Saudi Arabia there is already an ongoing rapprochement, even Cypriot and Greek politicians said they wouldn’t oppose Turkey joining the Gas Forum.

Regarding the second point, bilateral talks have already started. Ibrahim Kalin has made it clear in recent months that these talks could last several years. If then there is no solution to the Exclusive Economic Zones, continental shelves, and territorial waters in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, then Turkey would consider going to an international court.

For the third point, Turkey has other plans for Cyprus, namely, a two-state solution. But, the EU does not oblige Turkey to any kind of solution, e.g. unification in a federal or confederal state, but rather wants it to participate in negotiations.

If Turkey complies with these demands, then the EU offers to modernize the Custom’s Union; it offers to have high-level new dialogue with Turkey on issues like climate change, migration, public health; and it will continue to assist Turkey financially in hosting Syrian and other refugees and migrants.

Here is where things become less easy. The modernization and expansion of the Customs Union has been debated for many years. However, as German MP and foreign affairs spokesperson of the SPD, Nils Schmid, recently said during a webinar, Turkey does not even comply with the rules and regulations of the current Customs Union by continually restricting market access.

If there were modernization, Turkey would need to change its behavior and open public tenders to foreign competitors and make these processes more transparent. It is difficult to imagine that the Turkish government will want to do that. Therefore, some debate might start, but a successful modernization of the Custom’s Union seems more than difficult.

Regarding exploratory talks with Greece, dialogue always sounds good and is necessary since other exchange formats were terminated in recent years and the level of political exchange was very limited. Only the technical exchange was left. That von der Leyen and Michel visited Turkey on 6 April is a sign that such dialogue is now a priority. However, concrete topics won’t be easy to find.

It would of course be nice to include Turkey in the EU climate debate and the so-called Green Deal. Turkey has a lot of potential in renewable energy sources, which could accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuels in both Turkey and the EU. However, as long as Turkey does not join the Paris Climate Agreement, it cannot join the EU’s Green Deal. There will come find many such obstacles as dialogue is attempted.

Turkey’s participating in talks with Cyprus is probably the easiest part for the EU, which got scared after 2015 whether there would be willingness to continue paying Turkey to assist refugees both in Turkey and in the Idlib province.

This shift to foreign policy means that the member states do not believe that they can affect domestic policies, something they have learned in recent years. On March 25, the member states stated that they had also given up on trying to change Turkey in this regard. This is good news for the government, but bad news for those in Turkey struggling for a more democratic state both within political parties, NGOs, and as journalists or academics. The only EU institution which still cares, the European Parliament, is also the least important. It might make noise, but it will not bother the government and is unlikely to produce any results. It is a decoration, as are any mentions of the domestic situation in the summit declaration.
 
An interesting question for the coming months/years will be, how long these parallel frameworks will continue to exist. If the member states think that Turkey is no longer a candidate, and Turkey is ok with that, then why not present a completely new framework without the membership option, but also without the acquis and the Commission and Parliament writing yearly reports with hardly any readership and no impact.

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