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Accession in abeyance: Ankara & Brussels: finding a way forward?

05 Jun 2018 - 11:57
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The full text of this opinion was published on 1 June 2018 by Turkish Policy Quarterly.

Seen through the lens of Brussels, 2017 was a difficult year for Turkey-EU relations. Many  EU capitals expressed concern about the deterioration of human rights in Turkey, citing the detention of parliamentarians and journalists, military operations in Kurdish areas, and the mass arrests and dismissals of civil servants accused of being Gülen followers responsible for the failed coup attempt of 2016. Many Turkish politicians accused the EU of supporting the Gülen movement and for playing into the hands of terrorists. They have complained about  a lack of understanding and solidarity from EU member states. In his opinion author Jan Marinus Wiersma outlines the complexity of Turkish-EU relations by analysing the contributing factors and the steps needed to improve relations.

In April 2017, a narrow majority of the Turkish electorate voted in favor of constitutional amendments that proposed to transform the country’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system. Inside the EU, many politicians and observers saw these changes as a step towards an autocratic system. The European Parliament warned that the full implementation of the new system in 2019 would lead to the official end of the accession negotiations.1

In the run-up to the plebiscite, some Turkish politicians campaigned for a “yes” vote for the referendum in EU countries with large Turkish minorities. The media and EU politicians heavily criticized this as an unacceptable attempt to persuade European communities to vote in favor of constitutional changes. In response, the Dutch government blocked a Turkish minister from giving a public speech in Rotterdam. Ankara reacted immediately by barring the Dutch ambassador to Turkey from entering the country. President Erdoğan went so far as to accuse the German and Dutch governments of Nazi practices. This did not help in improving the already strained relations between Ankara and Berlin. 2

Erdoğan’s friendlier attitude towards Europe has been linked to pressure from economic interest groups

A Change of Tone
Ultimately, by the end of the year, President Erdoğan had changed his tone. He suddenly spoke of his good friends in the German, Dutch, and Belgian governments. He officially visited France and the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs met his German counterpart in a friendly atmosphere. In an attempt to explain this unexpected turn, commentators  pointed to the fact that the Turkish president  wanted to avoid further isolation now that his relationship with Trump has soured over contentious issues including Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, US support for the Kurds in Syria, the issue of extraditing Fethullah Gülen to Turkey, and the possible implications of several Turkish banks’ involvement in evading Iran sanctions. Erdoğan’s friendlier attitude towards Europe and his insistence on the continuation of the accession process have also been linked to pressure from economic interest groups,  and the EU’s stance on the Jerusalem controversy.3

  • 1. European Parliament Resolution on the 2016 Commission Report on Turkey, 6 July 2017. P8TA(2017)0306
  • 2. Amanda Paul and Juliane Schmidt, “Turkey’s relations with Germany and the EU: Breaking the vicious circle,” EPC, Policy Brief, 2 October 2017.
  • 3. Matthew Karnitschnig and Zia Weise, “Beginnings of a Turkish-German Bromance,” Politico, 11 January 2018.