A recent survey told you everything you need to know about EU-Turkey relations: some 75.5 percent of the country said it would still like to join the European Union — but only 36 percent think Turkey will ever be admitted.
There’s an obvious reason for the disparity: The EU’s ambivalence toward Turkey’s accession.
This is a pity. Turkey and the EU have much to offer each other. Ankara, officially a candidate since 1999, deems the accession negotiations the backbone of its relations with Brussels.
The negotiations provide a structured dialogue that enables the EU to engage with Turkey in a constructive manner. For Turkey, it is the driving force for reforms and further alignment with the values and regulations of the EU.
Unfortunately, the EU has lost its anchoring role vis-à-vis Turkey after it allowed some members to block 18 out of 35 chapters between 2006-2009 and thus let the accession negotiations fall prey to national interests. It’s time for Brussels to put Turkey unambiguously back on the track of the accession process.
Opponents of Turkey’s membership have always argued that the country is “too big, too poor and too different” (read “too Muslim”). But one could just as easily argue the opposite.
Turkey’s size, population and global weight will be an asset for the EU, and its young and dynamic population could be the antidote to the EU’s aging population.
As to being “poor,” Turkey has been growing rapidly. It is now Europe’s sixth largest economy and the 18th largest globally. According to recent forecasts, the country will become the world’s 12th largest economy by 2030, surpassing Italy and South Korea. And Ankara performs better than some EU members when it comes to meeting the Maastricht Criteria.
Finally, Turkey’s predominantly Muslim population and secular state will contribute to the bloc’s cultural diversity, which in turn could help to alleviate the rise of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and radicalization across the EU. Moreover, the membership of a secular, Muslim country could facilitate the integration of Muslim Europeans into their respective societies, as well as increase the bloc’s ability to reach out to the Muslim world.
The failed coup attempt perpetrated by the Fetullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETO) on July 15, 2016, disrupted the momentum that had been built following the November 29, 2015 Turkey-EU Summit.
The coup attempt, the bloodiest in the history of the Republic, targeted Turkish democracy, forced Turkey to declare a state of emergency and tarnished Turkey’s image as well as disrupting Turkey-EU cooperation and the accession process.
After a period of difficult relations — driven by the EU’s slow and weak response to an attempted coup and heightened tensions ahead of a constitutional referendum which led to a crisis of confidence towards the EU in Turkey — the months ahead hold plenty of potential for the reinvigoration of Turkey-EU relations.
Meetings on May 25 between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the presidents of the European Council, Commission and Parliament reinforced the dedication to cooperate in Ankara and Brussels. And both sides have committed to work together to curb irregular migration, fight the scourge of terrorism, move toward visa liberalization, upgrade the 1996 Customs Union and keep the accession process alive.
These are fruitful areas of cooperation. Visa-free travel to the Schengen Area for Turkish citizens — once Turkey fulfills the last remaining seven of the EU’s 72 benchmarks — will promote people-to-people contact, contribute to economic growth and increase cooperation in security, counterterrorism and management of irregular migration.
Improving the Customs Union and the expansion of its scope will expedite economic convergence and provide economic dynamism and benefits to both sides in an increasingly competitive global market.
Thanks to a deal between Turkey and the EU on the management of irregular migration, illegal and perilous crossings over the Aegean have dwindled down from 7,000 a day to double digits at most, and migrant deaths crossing that sea have been almost completely prevented. Accelerated funding to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the implementation of the Voluntary Humanitarian Readmission Scheme will increase the EU’s credibility, as well as help share Turkey’s heavy burden.
To be sure, Turkey will join the EU only after fully meeting membership criteria and when both sides agree to move forward with accession. But doing so will require the EU to commit to genuine engagement, through constructive criticism and honest dialogue — despite the rise of populism, the growth of the extreme right, and the distractions of Brexit and weakening transatlantic ties.
Turkey is working to overcome the trauma of last year’s attempted coup, while hosting some 3.3 million refugees and fighting multiple terrorist organizations. And yet, Ankara is not asking for privileged treatment. It only expects to be treated on an equal footing with all the other candidates and for the EU to be a credible anchor.
Turkey’s accession to the EU might be the most challenging of all processes, past and prospective. But it will be the most beneficial and most meaningful. This is why at this critical juncture, a constructive dialogue about accession is more important than ever.
Faruk Kaymakcı is the Permanent Delegate of Turkey to the EU.