60, 43, 36, 28, 24, 18, 16, 8, 7, 6, 100.
These numbers are not a part of an arithmetic sequence problem; they indicate the story of Turkish–European Union relations which is like a never-ending story as neither side has said they are giving up.
It has been 60 years since the signing of the Ankara Agreement. The year 1963 belongs to a different era when the Cold War was the determinant of most countries’ foreign policies. The European Economic Community (EEC), as it was then called, was mostly an economic entity, although its origins were political. At that time Türkiye along with Greece, chose to associate with the EEC rather than the rival European Free Trade Association, and the journey began. While Greece joined the EEC as a member later on, Türkiye, by its own choice, remained outside and that is when all the ensuing challenges became insurmountable.
Footsteps of the challenges in Türkiye-EU relations
After the military coup that occurred in Türkiye 43 years ago, many European nations started requiring visas for Turkish citizens to enter their territories. Unfortunately, this practice has persisted, and the situation has worsened despite attempts to improve it. The number of denied visa applications has increased, and those that are granted are typically only valid for a short time. The unofficial argument is that Turkish citizens and even Erasmus students are applying for asylum due to the economic and political situation in the country. Furthermore, a not-so-small number of Syrians and others who have become Turkish citizens tried to pass on to EU countries under that cover.
It has been 36 years since Ankara decided to apply for membership as Türkiye finally returned to a semblance of democracy in the mid-80’s,. It was too late, as Greece had already joined, as had Spain and Portugal. Finally, after two and a half years, the Commission gave its “opinion”. At that time, the Commission stated that the Community was not prepared for any further enlargement due to the fact that it was busy completing the Single Market. In short, the EU did not consider itself or Türkiye ready. The criticisms levelled against Türkiye at that time were mainly economic in nature. This was a typical EU response. It did not close the door completely, but it did not give much hope either.
Membership hopes: Customs Union dead-end
After Türkiye received the response, it tried to improve its relations with the EU by embracing the Customs Union process. As the international scene was evolving, the EU was preparing to incorporate Eastern European countries. After long and arduous negotiations, the Customs Union was completed 28 years ago. There was much criticism within Türkiye that the economy would not be able to withstand the competition, especially as the EU could not deliver financial assistance due to Greece’s blockage.
Türkiye also agreed to abide by the EU’s decisions within the Customs Union framework, as the common belief in Ankara was that Türkiye would soon be a member. Based on the stages that the EU had gone through, Türkiye embarked on this path with the idea that the economic integration with the EU, which started with the Customs Union, could gradually spread to other areas and lead to a political integration that would result in eventual membership. Therefore, for Türkiye, the Customs Union was a phase, not a goal. However, the EU had other ideas. It soon became clear how different the parties’ perspectives on the Customs Union were. The EU regarded the Customs Union as the furthest point at which Türkiye could get close.
Perpetual candidacy: Chapters opening and closing
As the former communist countries were gradually accepted back into the European family as candidates, Türkiye was left out. After discontinuing dialogue and hard negotiations, Türkiye was finally accepted as a candidate 24 years ago. Nevertheless, even then, it took more efforts and difficult discussions to start accession negotiations. Every time Türkiye was making progress towards the EU, one or more members took up the challenge of procrastinating. While it was usually Greece or Cyprus, this time it was Austria that prolonged the opening of negotiations 18 years ago. Ironically, it was during the Austrian Presidency that Türkiye opened and closed its only negotiating chapter.
However, Cyprus was already an EU member as of the end of May 2004 and had endless demands. While Cyprus was making every effort for recognition by Türkiye, Ankara was resisting these pressures by emphasising the unfulfilled promises made by the EU to the Turkish Cypriots. The first blow was struck in December 2006 when the Council, under Greek Cypriot pressure, decided not to open eight negotiation chapters and not to close the ones that were opened. The reason was that Türkiye did not extend the Customs Union to Cyprus. Later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy blocked five more chapters with the bizarre explanation that these led to membership. By the end of 2009, Cyprus announced that it had blocked six more chapters on its own, claiming that there had been no progress on the 2006 decision. So far, only 16 chapters out of 35 have been opened.
Revitalisation of relations
The revitalisation of relations took place due to the panic created by the unpreventable pressure of illegal migration on the EU countries in the summer of 2015. This was the result of the civil war in Syria that began in 2011. When Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in mid-2015 that Germany would open its borders to refugees, the number of illegal migrants from Syria and other countries travelling through Türkiye to Greece and then to the EU reached enormous proportions, and Brussels was forced to ask Türkiye for help to stem the flow.
On 29 November 2015 and 18 March 2016, two agreements were signed between Türkiye and the EU. Although Türkiye had not been invited to European Council meetings since 2004, the EU held three summits with Türkiye alongside the participation of all EU country leaders in just four months. However, after the dismissal of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the attempted coup that summer, the EU failed to fulfil most of its promises, using the state of emergency and other measures following the coup as an excuse.
While Türkiye did not have the high level dialogue at the European Councils, Turkish Foreign Ministers were usually, but not always, invited to the informal meetings of the Foreign Ministers, called Gymnich. However, due to the deteriorating relationship, Türkiye has not been invited to the last 8 Gymnich meetings.
It has been 7 years since the last chapter was opened. Negotiations on the modernisation of the Customs Union have not started on the same grounds. Relations have worsened. Mutual accusations were made. Later on, the EU imposed sanctions as a reaction to Turkish policies towards Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Migration deal and growing mutual distrust
The 18 March 2016 migration deal entitled providing Turkish citizens with a visa free regime as long as Türkiye fulfilled a number of benchmarks. 6 benchmarks out of seventy two, remain but Ankara does not seem to be in any hurry to meet them. Moreover, the situation is much different from seven years ago, when the EU was desperate for Türkiye to help stem the refugee tide.
The recent mutual mistrust reflects the lowest level ever experienced in Türkiye-EU relations. The EU does not trust Türkiye in areas such as fundamental rights and the rule of law, as well as in its foreign policy stance. Türkiye, in turn, criticises the EU for refusing to fulfil many of its promises under various pretexts. Even if the EU does not want Türkiye to become a member, it also does not wish Türkiye to act adversely. However, the EU’s short-sighted policies have pushed relations to this point. Since the EU is not uniform and each country pursues different policies, the members that have issues with Türkiye have been decisive in EU policy, and the gap is widening. Although contacts with major members of the EU such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy have increased recently, these have been mostly on a bilateral basis, while there has been no progress on membership negotiations, visa exemption or updating the Customs Union.
Divergent approaches and objectives
The main source of disagreement is that the relations are based on divergent approaches and objectives. Enemy, rival, competitor and at times an ally. This is how European countries often described the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the 19th century, the Ottomans tried to be accepted within the Concert of Europe. This was finally attained after the British, French, Sardinia-Piedmont and Ottoman alliance in the Crimean War against Russia. With the establishment of the Republic 100 years ago, Türkiye continued this course because it preferred Westernisation as a process of modernisation.
It was only after the end of the Cold War that Türkiye fully woke up to the disappointment of the westernisation process. The most obvious point is that only one of the parties, namely Türkiye had changed and the other party had hidden or, for reasons of self-interest, not revealed its real position. Ankara’s inclusion in Western institutions, especially during the Cold War, reinforced the belief that it was accepted into the fold. However, with the end of the Soviet Union, frozen reflexes slowly re-emerged in EU chancelleries. It was realised that the European countries’ view of Türkiye had not changed at all. Türkiye was not part of the European/Western family.
This has played into the hands in Türkiye of those who were already ambivalent towards the West. The last election result in Türkiye will unfortunately reinforce the mistrust between the two sides and prolong the transactional relationship. What is more tragic is that both sides are content with this arrangement. Türkiye is not pursuing membership, yet it is still part of European defense through NATO. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not only changed NATO and the EU but has also shown Türkiye’s ambivalence.
In a sense, Türkiye has once again become a rival or competitor and at times an ally of the West. There is an urgent need to discuss future prospects and redress this situation. Otherwise, as the distance between Türkiye and the West increases, it will be to the detriment of both.