CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina — Turkey used to be a flawed democracy gravitating toward the EU. The road to a full-fledged liberal democracy was long and tortuous, but the direction of travel seemed clear. That is no longer the case.
Today, Turkey’s prospects for joining the EU are the lowest they have been since talks began in 2005. Indeed, one of the few things Europeans and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can agree on is that for the moment, EU membership is out of question.
And, yet it would be a mistake for the EU to turn its back on its southeastern neighbor. Not only does Turkey remain an important partner when it comes to energy, security and trade; a rapid deterioration would strengthen — rather than weaken — the country’s increasingly authoritarian president.
The presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 ratified the transition to a one-man rule under Erdoğan. (Or perhaps one-and-a-half-man rule, given that the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party will be relying on the support by Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Action Party [MHP to control the new parliament.)
Under such circumstances, Turkey’s European aspiration is a relic of the past.
The bloc takes in close to half of Turkey’s exports and provides about two-thirds of the foreign direct investment going into the country.
Several days after the Turkish polls, the EU’s foreign ministers noted, matter-of-factly, that Ankara has been moving away from the bloc and that accession talks are at a “standstill.” With Erdoğan’s supporters still busy celebrating, the Turkish government was not shedding tears. Even the opposition — which has long felt abandoned by Europe — wasn’t bemoaning Brussels’ neglect.
And yet, however cool their relations, the EU and Turkey continue to depend on one another. Indeed, the economic storm headed toward Turkey — the principal reason why Erdoğan called an election more than a year ahead of time — highlights the country’s links with Europe.
The EU is still by far Turkey’s dominant trading partner. The bloc takes in close to half of Turkey’s exports and provides about two-thirds of the foreign direct investment going into the country. And when it comes to matters of international trade — for instance, U.S. President Donald Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel — Turkey would be far worse off fighting alone, rather than in coordination with the EU, with which it has been bound in a customs union since 1996.
The EU needs Turkey too. Notwithstanding the election results, the European Council agreed on June 29 to release the second tranche of €3 billion in financial assistance for Syrian refugees. Imperfect as it is, the EU-Turkey refugee deal reached in March 2016 to stem the tide of asylum seekers has stuck. With migration remaining a burning political issue in key EU countries like Germany, the partnership with Ankara is set to endure.
Similarly, the inauguration of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline last month underscored Turkey’s value as an ally in the EU’s pursuit of energy security through the diversification of hydrocarbon imports. True, the energy dynamic between Turkey and the EU is far from tension-free, as evident from the growing friction over gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean since the collapse of the Cyprus peace talks last year. But here too, the interdependence between Turkey and the EU is structural and bound to endure moving forward.
A similar argument can be made about security. Whether it’s about Syria, terrorism or Russia, Turkey and the EU rarely see fully eye-to-eye. And yet they need one another, especially now, with an increasingly unpredictable president on the other side of the Atlantic.
Given this dependence and Turkey’s backsliding on democracy and human rights, the temptation in many European capitals is to call off membership talks and settle for an ad hoc, à la carte relationship with Ankara. The EU should do no such thing.
There is good reason to believe that Erdoğan is happy with the state of play. Yes, he has a penchant for blasting European governments like the Netherlands, Austria or Greece for treating Turkey unfairly and for nurturing Islamophobia. But the Turkish president benefits from a purely transactional relationship with Europe. That allows him to cherry-pick benefits, seek ad hoc deals with individual member countries and ignore criticism or lash out whenever it’s convenient.
If the EU were to pull the plug on membership talks, that would be a gift to the Turkish president. He will whip up nationalism and lay blame for whatever problems the country confronts — be it inflation spiraling out of control or an uptick of violence in the Kurdish-populated south-eastern provinces — at Europe’s feet. Far better to let Erdoğan to take this momentous decision, and deal with its consequences domestically.
Instead, the EU should extend an offer to upgrade the customs union with Turkey. At face value, this is a long-standing demand by Ankara, and conceding to it now may appear to be rewarding the Turkish president.
Brussels should do its best to manage tensions, with an eye to playing the long game with Ankara.
But the truth is that a modernized customs union, and the rules attached to it, run contrary to how Erdoğan has been running Turkey’s economy. By refusing to negotiate a modernized customs union, European leaders are inadvertently providing Erdoğan with a boost.
To be sure, the EU should not stand still while Turkey backslides on democracy. It should stand by those within Turkey who share its values. Opposition politicians might be reluctant to reach out to Europe, lest they are labeled national traitors. But there’s much more European leaders can do for individuals and groups facing repression.
For instance, the European Commission could earmark money to support academics or civic activists who are seeking refuge abroad. Another worthwhile initiative would be to fund Turkish-language media based outside of the country, providing an alternative to the pro-government outlets that dominate internally. A key reason opposition parties underperformed in the elections was the blackout imposed by all major television channels loyal to Erdoğan.
Of course, the EU has only limited influence. Turkey certainly won’t change overnight. But this should not be used as an excuse for the EU to give up. Brussels should do its best to manage tensions, with an eye to playing the long game with Ankara. The stakes — for the EU and for Turkey — are simply too high to turn the other way.
Dimitar Bechev is a research fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali and special adviser to European High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini.