Bringing Turkey back to the EU debate

Shunned by the EU with membership talks effectively blocked, Turkey feels empowered. It is no longer on the European periphery, but at the centre of its own world.  

On the face of it, the euro crisis has infused yet more alienation into the already detached relations between Turkey and the European Union. Many Turks look at the trouble-stricken and enfeebled Union with an overt sense of Schadenfreude.

And they relish at their country’s robust growth. Shunned by the EU with membership talks effectively blocked, Turkey feels empowered. No longer on the European periphery, but at the centre of its own world spanning from North Africa and the Middle East all the way to the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The Arab Awakening seemingly vindicates this vision. But, as of late 2012, turmoil in Syria has exposed the limits of Ankara’s influence. Indeed now Turkey has turned to NATO allies for support.

These twin crises present an opportunity too. It is precisely from the depths of the Union’s ongoing drama that a “post-hubris” Turkey could be brought organically into the conversation on the future of Europe.

The current drive at deeper integration in the eurozone leads the Union towards a multi-tier arrangement. Could such a development facilitate Turkey’s inclusion in the EU-to-be and revive its Europeanisation and democratic consolidation?

Much depends on EU’s own evolution. We see three scenarios: EU of concentric circles, a daisy-shaped EU and a spaghetti bowl Union.

According to Scenario 1, the eurozone federalises huge chunks of economic and fiscal policy, the outer circle of members would continue to participate in the single market. Turkey may join the company of current members such as the UK, the Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden, as well as future entrants from the Western Balkans.

The likes of France and Germany will soften their opposition to Turkey, safe in the newly built core. Such a scenario, however, is not unproblematic. Fellow outer-circle members, from Poland through Romania and Bulgaria all the way to the Western Balkans, may consider Turkey as deadweight, permanently relegating them to the EU’s periphery and curbing their aspirations to converge with the prosperous and well-governed the core. 

Poland would like to be in the first-class carriage, together with France and Germany. Turkey, for its part, while happy with retaining sovereignty, may also resent not sitting at the top table. The day Turkey discovers that it is handed down decisions on economic issues by the eurozone, it may well regret the bargain. Europhiles in Turkey will perhaps be unhappy too as Brussels’ transformative pressure will be diluted on the outer reaches of the Union.

A second option is a daisy-shaped EU: an integrated core with hub-and-spoke relationships with the “outs”. European Parliament member Andrew Duff foresees the growingly eurosceptic UK drifting away from the EU to settle for a deal echoing the partial integration of countries such as Norway and Switzerland.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey is cast as a member of that cohort of “associate” or “virtual members” too. It would adopt only part of the acquis and be admitted as observer in most EU bodies. In external and internal security policies, cooperate via intergovernmental deals, not Brussels’ supranational institutions.

But such an arrangement would differ little from the “privileged partnership” advocated for years by Europe’s centre-right critics of Turkish membership ambitions. Furthermore, as associate partners would pick and choose from EU laws, adherence with Europe’s underlying values would be partial. The end result: Turkey’s reforms risk remaining largely off-track.

In the multiple-cluster, “spaghetti bowl” EU, there would be two cores. As argued by Timothy Garton Ash, a rare europhile amongst today’s British commentators,  a federal eurozone focused on economic affairs would be twinned a foreign-policy caucus where the UK could still play a leading part.

Turkey would surely fit well in the second core as well: It would give it first-class status without having to sacrifice highly prized national sovereignty. Yet presently this model appears least likely to materialise. It is complex, opens tough institutional questions, and plants the seeds of daunting turf wars in Brussels.

A more tightly-knit eurozone will have all the incentives in the world to federalise external relations too. Splitting economic policy from foreign affairs is utopian insofar as much of what the EU does in global politics is an extension of its market power at home. One thing is obvious: the UK holds the key to how Turkey’s relations with the EU will shape. Membership in the outer rim that excludes Britain would most likely be snubbed by Ankara. 

All scenarios have their pros and cons, but what matters is whether Turkey’s status results from imposition or choice. To make relations work more smoothly and limit the negative fallout from Europe’s mid-term evolution, policymakers in Brussels and national capitals should factor Turkey into their discussion.

For Turkish élites to take the initiative and in so doing being actively part of the European family is of the essence too.  Realistically, the government in Ankara is unlikely to take up the initiative. They have other priorities, from Syria to the Kurdish issue at home, and would  not easily take risks bearing the “privileged partnership” stamp.

Rightly so. But it is up to think tanks, academics, civil society, and public intellectuals to pay closer attention to the EU’s internal transformation and work out the implications for Turkey.  Bringing in Turkish voices into the debate would create a genuinely political process and contribute to a pan-European public space, which the accession process so badly lacks.

Above all, engaging Turkey in the conversation on the future of Europe could provide a vision to reignite momentum in Turkish-European ties and re-anchor Turkey to the Union.

This article first appeared on EurActiv. Nathalie Tocci and Dimitar Bechev also published a policy brief on Turkey's  place in post-crisis Europe (pdf).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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