Relations between the European Union (EU) and Turkey have often been weighed-down by the political, social and religious divide. Turkey has been trying to join the bloc for decades with formal accession talks starting in 2006. However, the non-binding decision by the European Parliament (EP) to suspend accession talks last week was a symbolic blow to relations and also threatened irreparable damage to the vital migrant deal.
The migrant deal agreed in March 2016 served as a landmark between the EU and Turkey. Not only did it stem the flow of thousands Syrian refugees that led to a massive crisis across the EU, but it set the foundation for a reinvigoration of ties.
As part of the agreement, Turkey would move to seal its border and receive financial aid in return. Crucially, Turkey would also get via-free access to the Schengen area and an acceleration of accession talks if certain conditions could be met by Turkey, including amendment of its tough anti-terror laws.
Even after the deal was struck, there was a level of unease between both sides and an increasing negative rhetoric.
However, after the failed coup in July, the Turkish landscape transformed on many fronts. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took drastic action at the coup-plotters and this lead to a wide crackdown of opposition circles and the media which shocked the EU.
This saw an increase in the language of threats on both sides. Ankara was disappointed with lack of a strong EU response to the failed coup and has seemingly ignored most of the criticism from EU over its crackdown and in turn looked to build new bridges with Russian and its eastern frontier as a warning to NATO and the EU.
Erdogan even threatened to extend the state of emergency, stating this is a decision for Turkey whilst telling the EP “What’s it to you… Know your place!”
With Turkey even threatening to reintroduce the death penalty, Turkey clearly lacks the conviction of joining the EU at any price.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim downplayed the decision by the EP as having “no significance as far as we are concerned.” Whilst Erdogan warned the EU that they could reinforce their relations to the East and join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), “The EU has been delaying us for 53 years. Why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai five?”
Turkey’s vital strategic position as a major power straddling Europe and Asia and serving as a gateway the Middle East meant that it was always going to have huge importance to the EU. But having a predominantly Islamic based Turkey as a full member of what many perceive as a ‘Christian club’ was seemingly a bridge too far.
More importantly, Turkey needed to drastically narrow the gap of EU requirements if it was ever going to seriously become a full member of the EU. And this gap, widening as ever, demonstrates the great difficulties of seeing a country, that borders Iraq, Iran and Syria and with its different values and political landscape of ever joining the EU.
Over the years, EU powers had to manoeuvre around their strategic reliance on Ankara with any criticism of its anti-terror laws, restrictions on freedoms and especially the treatment of its Kurdish population. The arrest of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leaders might have been a final straw that led to the EP vote.
An example of the cautious nature of the EU towards Turkey is the response of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, to the EP decision. On the one hand, he urged EU member to “refrain from giving lessons” to Turkey on the refugee crisis as Turkey was taking a greater burden then Europe on the matter but at same time he warned Turkey that they must abide by migrant deal, and stop the authoritarian treatment of its citizens or be responsible for the consequences.
Whilst acknowledging democratic progress under Erdogan until 2014, Junker beloved that in the past two years, Turkey has “distanced itself from European principles and value.”
An angry Erdogan threatened to “open the border gates” and flood the EU with thousands of migrants if the EP went any further. This would spell obvious disaster for EU and is a scenario that no one in Europe wants to see.
One of the anxious EU leaders was German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she urged both Europeans and Turkey to meet commitments. Whilst Merkel insisted the agreement is in the mutual interest of both sides, in reality it is Europe without a Plan B and that remains highly concerned by a new influx of refugees that stands to really lose.
However, how long does the EU continue bend in its ideals and freedoms, which it openly acknowledges are not matched in Ankara, in appeasing Turkey?
First Published: Kurdistan 24