The fall of 2019 was a silent turning point for the European Union. First, the EU Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced on September 10 that in her term, she will lead a “geopolitical” commission and Europe will learn “the language of power.” Subsequently, in October, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked Albania and Macedonia’s EU membership accession talks, citing the need to reform the EU enlargement policy — thus actualizing the debates on altering the rules on becoming an EU member.
Both of these turning points are vitally important for Turkey. And while the concept of a “geopolitical” commission remains nebulous, the second goal of learning the “language of power” is developing quickly.
Last week, EU Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi unveiled a revised methodology for the new EU accession policy in Brussels. According to proposals outlined by Várhelyi on February 5, there will be a bigger emphasis on rule of law reforms in the accession process, and EU member states will be more involved in monitoring candidate countries. Moreover, any progress achieved in the accession process will be reversible. In Várhelyi’s words, the Commission seeks to “make it clear that we can also go backwards,” and that, “in our public opinion and in our Members States, there is a very strong call that we need to be able to reverse also the negotiations.”
While sharing the proposed new roadmap for accession, Várhelyi emphasized that the EU’s commitment to admitting six countries has not waned. These include first and foremost North Macedonia and Albania, followed by Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Várhelyi’s aforementioned statement and the official document for the “revised methodology” do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
The new methodology is yet to be defined in more concrete terms; what is now in place is more of a conceptual outline, as opposed to the step-by-step framework proposed by France back in November 2019.
According to France’s plan, the accession countries would be monitored in seven steps. Those who are unable to implement the reforms for a step will not be able to proceed to the next one. Each step would be complemented with a carrot and stick approach, in which the candidate country would be “rewarded” with certain advantages of EU membership. But the whole package would be available only to those who are able to complete all steps.
The new methodology proposed by the Commission promises a “more credible, dynamic, predictable, politically stronger” enlargement process — but does not go into detail about how these targets will be achieved.
Where France’s “Seven-Step Proposal” and the Commission’s methodology coincide is in the emphasis on the rule of law: both foresee the completion of the “rule of law” criteria as the first and foremost step of accession. That’s where contemporary Turkey’s accession process would end before it even resumed. The seven steps are listed as the following: rule of law and fundamental rights, education and research, employment and social affairs, financial affairs, the single market, agriculture and fisheries, foreign affairs, and “others.”
France and the Commission diverge on when the enlargement should proceed, though. Macron has clearly underlined that he prefers reform within the EU first before starting to accept new members. In his interview with the Economist, he reiterated that:
“I don’t want any further new members until we’ve reformed the European Union itself. In my opinion that’s an honest, and indispensable, prerequisite.”
Nevertheless, the Commission’s methodology document and Várhelyi himself indicated that the accession process for North Macedonia and Albania will continue on without any interruption ahead of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May. At this summit, an economic and investment plan for the region will be presented to strengthen the process of accession.
How about Turkey?
Even floating the idea of a new enlargement policy was met with “preemptive objection” from Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu sent a letter to Várhelyi on Jan. 22 in anticipation of the Commission’s declaration. The letter was also addressed to the EU Commission’s high representative Josep Borrell, and Gordan Grlic-Radman, Croatia’s minister of foreign and European affairs, since Croatia holds the presidency of the EU Council until July 2020. But, it is unlikely that Çavuşoğlu’s letter objecting to the changing the rules of the accession game will be the last of Turkey’s objections to the EU Commission’s recent changes in heart and mind. One does not need to be a wizard to prophesize that the paths of the Commission and Turkey will continue to diverge in the future.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.