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Europe needs a new framework for Turkey

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The writer is the director of the Istanbul-based Edam think-tank and a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

European leaders will face a historic decision at their next summit in December. After years of prevarication, they must decide whether the EU is finally ready to accept new members. Geopolitical shocks such as the war in Ukraine, but also the growing prospect of a long-term rivalry with China, have precipitated this moment of truth. Yet the real dilemma lies elsewhere. As the EU charts a path for the accession of new countries including Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the question of Turkey looms large.

Had Turkey pursued its reform agenda, the task facing EU leaders would have been much simpler. Already a candidate country since 1999, Ankara’s progress could then have been judged on the same merits as the remaining members of this club of aspirant nations. However, over the past decade, Turkey has drifted away from European norms on democracy and the rule of law. This backtracking stands in contrast to the logic of EU enlargement, which is essentially predicated on the will to reform. The lack of a domestic consensus in Turkey for reform, as evidenced by the May 2023 elections, shrouds the future of Turkey-EU relations in uncertainty.

This uncertainty has persisted, as there has been no tangible progress on the Turkey-EU agenda for years. But Europe can no longer postpone the inevitable. Making a historic opening to new nations while sidestepping the issue of Turkey would be a truly superficial outcome for December’s summit.

This can be resolved by redefining Europe’s long-term relationship with Turkey, based on four key principles. First, Turkey needs to remain a candidate for enlargement. Despite the negative developments of the past several years, there is no value in challenging its status as one — especially given that, despite having failed to capture political power, there is a strong domestic constituency in Turkey interested in advancing the prospect of political integration with the EU.

Second, the changed circumstances should be reflected in the creation of a European framework for relations with Turkey. Viewed from Ankara, the EU has been unable to provide a channel of positive engagement with Turkey at this time of geopolitical upheaval. This has also complicated the championing of a domestic narrative to counter the strong scepticism about the west that permeates public discourse. Viewed from Brussels, this lack of engagement has resulted in a total loss of leverage over Turkish policy, domestic or foreign. 

Third, the new framework should aim to improve Turkish governance, in contrast to the accession track which remains focused on political rights. A concrete achievement can be the green-lighting of negotiations for the deepening of the Turkey-EU customs union. Broadening this arrangement to include services would lead to Turkey’s policies converging with those of the EU, enhancing policy predictability and the rule of law. This initiative, along with visa liberalisation, policy convergence in green and digital sectors, energy collaboration and joint diplomacy in Africa and Central Asia, could profoundly reshape Turkey-EU political relations.

Finally, the new deal between Turkey and the EU must recognise today’s global landscape. Regardless of whether Turkey can ever become an EU member, neither entity would be well served by a future of rivalry and antagonism.

The deal should foster a gradual and sustainable rapprochement, acknowledging Turkey’s aim of strategic autonomy and its growing identification with the concerns of the Global South. This embedding of Turkey, with its own capabilities and sensibilities, in the EU’s strategic plan, could contribute to a revitalised western alliance that is better equipped to respond to a cornucopia of regional and global challenges. This is the crucial test for Europe’s leaders as they prepare for this decisive summit.

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