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German Chancellor Merkel speaks at the closing press meeting of the EU summit. (Photo: EU)

As expected, the European Union (EU) avoided endorsing though sanctions against Turkey at the Dec. 10-11 summit, while postponing the issue to March, 2021. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to be content with the summit conclusions as he praised, without naming them, certain countries for acting with “common sense.” No doubt that he was talking about Germany essentially, as well as other countries like Italy that backed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in blocking France as well as Greece and Greek Cyprus’ maximalist demands against Turkey.

Does that mean Turks should be thankful to Merkel? Yes and no.
Before elaborating on the answer, let us recall Merkel’s views on Turkey’s membership in the EU. Angela Merkel explicitly said when she became Germany’s prime minister 15 years ago that she was against Turkey’s membership to the bloc. Thanks to the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy who was much more aggressive in his objection to Turkey’s accession, she left the floor to the French President and succeeded to avoid Ankara’s reaction. By referring to the pacta sund servanda principle, she gave the message that she will remain loyal to past promises to Turkey, yet that has not stopped her from offering “privileged partnership” to Ankara instead of membership. Turkey turned down the “offer” by recalling the customs union with the EU and indicating it already was a privileged partner.

Is Merkel’s vision on Turkey becoming reality?

Yet, after 15 years today, Turkish-EU relations have come to boil down to “some form of partnership,” while the search for the “adjective” to define this partnership continues.
Membership is a long-forgotten terminology in relations with the EU while there seems to be a specific effort to make forget that Turkey officially remains a candidate.
As rightly observed by Turkish experts Ankara’s status has transformed from a candidate country to a partner; a neighbor, one with whom the EU has hostile relations.
See the summit conclusions. In contrast to the past practices, Turkey is not mentioned under the “enlargement” section. Reference to Turkey is made within the “External Relations” section, under the “Eastern Mediterranean” subtitle.

Turkey targeted for wrong reasons

Sanctions are not on the agenda because Turkey is drifting away from the EU’s democracy criteria, freezing its accession process because of its policy in the eastern Mediterranean which angers France, Greece, and Greek Cyprus. In other words, Turkey is being “punished” for the wrong reasons.

There is no mention of Turkey’s accession process in the summit conclusions. Instead, there is talk about “the development of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey.” Ankara is being reminded that the offer for a “positive EU-Turkey agenda” remains on the table if Turkey wanted to promote a genuine “partnership” with the Union.

In other words, there is talk about a transactional partnership with a neighbor, a working relationship based on cooperation on issues of mutual interests.

In that sense Merkel could be congratulated for advancing her agenda on Turkey; for the considerable progress, she registered in terms of realizing the vision she foresaw 15 years ago.

While Turkey could only be thankful to her for avoiding a total break up of relations with the EU, one should not be grateful to her for having succeeded, thanks also to the Turkish government’s anti-democratic practices for taking Turkey’s candidacy off the table.

Too early to get cross with Merkel

Yet, it is still early to get cross with Merkel. The positive agenda offered to Turkey cover the “areas of the economy and trade, people to people contacts, High-level dialogues, and continued cooperation on migration issues.”

Due to France’s objections, the EU has fallen short of mentioning the modernization of the customs union or visa liberalization; but no doubt both are the carrots on the table. Negotiations on these two issues were mired in a stalemate after the anti-democratic practices endorsed by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government following the failed coup attempt in 2016.

The word reform has recently become again the magic word in AK Party’s rhetoric. However, contradictory statements about fundamental freedoms like the rule of law have vindicated those who argued democratic reforms will remain just rhetoric.

Yet if the AK Party government were to overcome its unofficial coalition partner Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) objections and set on a reform movement, it has the opportunity to put its foot in front of the door before it totally closes ending any chance to revive the accession process.

On the other hand, while AK Party government seems to be happy to see that Greece and Greek Cyprus have failed to secure harsh sanctions against Turkey, the fact that the maritime problems in the Aegean and now in the Mediterranean have become an issue between Ankara and the EU is not good news from the Turkish perspective.

EU-US cooperation can benefit Turkey

The EU’s decision according to the summit’s conclusions to seek “to coordinate on matters relating to Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean with the United States,” is not necessarily a bad development. Due to the solidarity culture, the EU cannot be expected to be an honest broker in the eastern Mediterranean.

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s close relations with Greece and Greek Cyprus have raised alarm bells in certain quarters in Ankara. However, Biden’s warm history with Greeks and Greek Cypriots might help facilitate his hand to convince them for a solution based on compromise.

Following the summit, President Erdoğan said Turkey was right in the issue of the eastern Mediterranean where its oil and gas drilling activities are contested. “That’s why not much will come out of the March summit,” he said. It is not always enough to be right. Overconfidence based on the conviction that the West cannot afford to lose Turkey might be costly.
If Turkey were to take maximalist positions and show intransigence in the East Mediterranean, it will find a united front and risk a cascade of sanctions coming not only from the EU but from the U.S. as well.

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