If the EU wants to become a global player, it must take into account Turkey’s economic, military and geopolitical potential. Only its membership will allow the EU to avoid becoming an “economic giant and a political dwarf”
The visit of the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, to Turkey on September 6 and 7, put relations between Turkey and the EU back in the spotlight.
Although full membership negotiations between Turkey and the EU, which began on October 3, 2005, appear to be continuing legally, they are de facto at a standstill. When newspapers list countries negotiating with the EU, they include Turkey. However, full membership negotiations between Turkey and the EU have stalled and it is unclear when they will resume.
European Council President Charles Michel said last week that the EU must prepare to welcome new members from 2030. Speaking of enlargement, Michel mentioned Ukraine and Moldova as well as the Balkans Westerners, but not Ankara. In fact, EU-Turkey relations have been progressing outside of negotiation status for some time. Turkey’s status as an EU candidate and negotiating country was ignored. Turkey reacts to this attitude by criticizing the EU’s unilateral perspective.
The latest statement on this issue was made by Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. Fidan described Turkey’s exclusion as short-sighted at a time when strategic concerns are at the forefront of EU enlargement. According to Fidan, it is imperative to restart accession negotiations with Turkey and conduct relations with a view to full membership. During his visit to Ankara, Varhelyi implicitly and explicitly stated that Turkey was moving away from the EU and demanded urgent reforms.
Current issues between Turkey and the EU
The current outstanding issues between Turkey and the EU concern visa exemption, updating the customs union, humanitarian aid to refugees and the dispute over maritime jurisdiction. Let us briefly analyze these questions. The visa waiver is an agreement that allows Turkish citizens to travel within the Schengen area for 90 days. The EU has set 72 criteria that Turkey must meet to obtain visa-free travel. Turkey has fulfilled 66 of these obligations, while the completion of the others was delayed due to the attempted coup on July 15, 2016. Progress in this area has been hampered by the need to incorporate the definition of terrorism in the fight against terrorism. legislation in compliance with European standards.
Other commitments include cooperation with Europol, implementation of the readmission agreement, mutual legal assistance and alignment with EU standards on corruption. The European side believes that the entry into force of the visa waiver will be delayed. For this reason, he prefers the term “visa facilitation” rather than “visa waiver”, meaning visa exemption for students and business people.
During Varhelyi’s visit, Turkey and the EU also reached an agreement on updating the customs union. It was decided to create a working group to expand the scope of the customs union to include industrial products, agricultural products and investments. An agreement was also signed by the EU to provide 781 million euros for social services for Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey, and part of the aid promised at the earthquake donors’ conference was been unlocked.
During his meeting with Varhelyi, Fidan also called on the EU to abandon its previous decisions on disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. In 2019 and 2020, the EU supported the Greek and Greek Cypriot theses in the maritime jurisdiction dispute between Turkey and Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration of Southern Cyprus. The fact is that the starting and ending point of a state’s maritime jurisdiction – its continental shelf, territorial sea and exclusive economic zone – is a matter of international law. The settlement of disputes in this group does not fall within the competence of the EU, which is a supranational organization.
EU Enlargement Vision 2030
The war that began on February 24, 2022 with the Russian attack on Ukraine opened the door to a new era not only for NATO but also for the EU. For the first time in its history, the EU strongly supported military spending on war. A general consensus has emerged among Member States in favor of increasing defense spending. Sweden and Finland, two EU member states, have requested to join NATO due to the Russian threat. Finland became a NATO member in April 2023, while Sweden’s membership will likely be delayed until the end of the year due to delays in meeting its commitments.
The war in Ukraine also triggered a new wave of EU enlargement. In mid-2012, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia applied to join the EU. The EU has not rejected any of the candidates. Ukraine and Moldova were declared candidates, while even Georgia, a geographically Transcaucasian country, was not excluded. On September 8, High Representative Joseph Borrell also visited Tbilisi and declared that “the doors of the EU are open to Georgia.” On the other hand, EU leaders have often referred to the decision taken at the 2003 Thessaloniki summit.
The EU announced that Western Balkan countries that fulfilled their obligations would be accepted as full members. Among the Western Balkan countries, Montenegro and Serbia have been negotiating full EU membership since 2012 and 2014 respectively. Negotiations between Albania, North Macedonia and the EU began in July 2022. It is still unclear when Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina will be declared candidates and when negotiations will begin. However, EU Council President Michel said the EU should be ready to accept new members from 2030.
Turkey’s place in EU enlargement
It remains unclear when full membership negotiations between Turkey and the EU, which are virtually deadlocked, will resume. Following Turkey’s May 28 elections, Borrell was tasked by the Council of Europe with preparing a “strategic and far-sighted report on Turkey.” The report is expected to be released in October. But what was reaffirmed during Varhelyi’s visit is this: restarting full membership negotiations with Turkey is not a priority for the EU.
According to the EU, Turkey must take additional steps in the areas of democracy, rule of law and human rights in order to resume negotiations. EU officials criticize measures taken after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt and also complain that Turkey is not respecting rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. The EU ignores the concern that “the measures taken against terrorist rebels against the state were legal and legitimate and that the state of emergency indeed had a legal basis.”
All these developments show that the EU’s biased and discriminatory perspective towards Turkey persists. In fact, the EU’s discriminatory approach is also responsible for Turkey’s failure to make expected progress in full membership negotiations. The negotiating framework document is based on the rule of unanimity for each chapter. However, this rule was not applied to countries that joined the EU in 2004.
In the current circumstances, if the EU wants to become a global player, it must get rid of its prejudices and not discriminate against Turkey. Turkey is the country with the greatest potential to contribute to the EU’s strategic vision and does not only include Anatolia. The Ottoman hinterland included the Balkans, the Middle East, and northern Africa. As such, the country exerts cultural influence in these regions. Turkey is also part of the Turkic World and is a member of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
It would therefore be a lack of vision on the part of the EU, which is strategically planning its enlargement from 2030, not to take Turkey into account. Moreover, Turkey’s membership would strengthen the EU’s energy security and military cooperation and trigger new growth and development with a multiplier effect on the economy. At this stage, the scope and limits of the EU’s strategic vision are important.
For Turkey, EU membership is no longer of vital importance. But the same cannot be said of the EU. If the EU wants to become a global player, it must take into account Turkey’s economic, military and geopolitical potential. Only its membership will allow the EU to avoid becoming an “economic giant and a political dwarf”. It will be very difficult for the EU to maintain and develop its current level of integration without Turkey’s participation.
The author is a faculty member of Kocaeli University, Faculty of Political Science