Even days before the European Union summit last week, hopes among E.U. members for progress in the turbulent relationship with Turkey were in short supply. Preoccupied with the task of a steering Brexit talks as smoothly as possible, Turkish membership was on the sidelines of the agenda.
Still, the gathering highlighted the members’ differing approaches to future relations with Turkey, notably around the possibility of suspending or cutting €4 billion in E.U. pre-accession funds.
Germany called for a cut in pre-accession aid, elbowing aside earlier concerns about what alienating Ankara would mean for the deal to keep migrants in Turkey.
“Not only are Germans being arrested, but the entire rule of law in Turkey is moving in the wrong direction. We are very worried about this. And I will back a reduction in pre-accession funds,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday.
Berlin’s new position has been shaped by a spree of arrests of German nationals, rights activists, and journalists in Turkey over the past months. But even Ms. Merkel stopped short of asking for a complete halt to negotiation talks, which have already stalled.
“Germany and the E.U. will continue to put diplomatic and economic pressure on Erdogan – for instance, by refusing to expand the customs union that has existed since 1996,” Andrew Port, Professor of History at Wayne State University, told The Globe Post.
Ms. Merkel’s decision to reduce the pre-accession aid is a strong symbolic statement, Mr. Post said, but the German chancellor and her European partners are unlikely to break off negotiations on Turkey’s entry to the E.U.
The E.U.’s wavering over Turkish membership is rooted in the continent’s struggle to cope with migration and the fallout of the 2015 refugee crisis to domestic politics within the member states. Germany’s decision that year to accommodate of more than one million refugees appears now to be a watershed moment for the resurgence of far-right parties that have unsettled traditional political landscapes throughout the union.
Recently, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz led his right-wing People’s Party into an upset electoral victory. His platform rested on opposition to immigration from Muslim countries and objection to Turkey’s membership in the E.U.
Whereas Mr. Kurz seeks a complete end to accession talks with Turkey, most other E.U. members have called for a preservation of ties with a disgruntled Ankara in some form.
“Whatever the Austrians might say, a complete rupture with Ankara would endanger the deal that stopped the flow of refugees into the rest of Europe,” Mr. Port said.”
“However critical Vienna (and Berlin) may be of Erdogan and Turkey, the mainstream parties in both countries know that a new stream of refugees would only broaden support for the xenophobic right: the FPO in Austria and the AfD in Germany. And that is clearly something they wish to avoid at all costs,” he said, referring to the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria and Alternative for Germany.
Berlin, whose opinion resonates beyond its borders and shapes much of the policy in Brussels, appreciates the dilemma that persists.
During a meeting with his Polish counterpart ahead of the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the E.U. to make up its mind and come up with a clarified position toward Turkey, lamenting the confusion that afflicted the union.
Despite his threatening to scuttle the talks, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag called on Brussels to maintain negotiations with Turkey, prompting Ms. Merkel to say that E.U. will honor its promise to deliver aid to Ankara as part of the migration deal.
“I will also make clear that Turkey is doing a great job on the refugees and that we have obligations under the E.U.-Turkey deal. We have promised 3 billion euros for the coming years addition to the 3 billion that we have already committed. We need to deliver on this promise,” Deutsche Welle quoted the German chancellor as saying.
“The E.U. is rapidly moving toward a crunch point with Turkey,” Professor John O’Brennan of Maynooth University in Ireland told The Globe Post.
“The E.U. has increasingly tired of the jingoism coming out of Ankara and the mood toward Turkey has definitely changed,” he said. For Turkey, Brexit means Ankara will lose one of its main allies in the E.U. as London has expressed strong support for Turkish membership.
The need to maintain the migration deal has restrained the union’s tone to some extent. But the E.U. now finds itself in different circumstances now that key elections are over and the countries’ leaders have more space to deal with Turkey.
Ms. Merkel will have a much freer hand to take a tough line with Turkey, Mr. O’Brennan said. The entry of the far-right AfD to Bundestag will place additional pressure on the her government to take a tougher stance against Ankara.
“The recent decision by the European Court of Justice on refugees means that obstructionist member states like Hungary and Poland will find it much more difficult to prevent an E.U. ‘burden-sharing’ approach to refugees. Other developments also point to the emergence of a collective EU approach to refugees,” he noted.
The decision could also make it more difficult for Turkey to exploit the migration issue for its own purposes.
However, E.U. leaders are aware of other elements at play that shape its relations with Turkey.
“The EU could end up with two serious adversaries on its eastern and south-eastern borders: Russia and Turkey. This is a very high-stakes game with geopolitical ramifications that are only now being seriously discussed in EU capitals.”
According to Mr. O’Brennan, the E.U. will have to choose between continuing to string Turkey along, as its accession prospects appear all but over and executing a ‘Turk-Exit’ which could result in turmoil on its borders and the strengthening of the developing relationship between Mr. Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The E.U. will have to risk the latter in order to protect the integrity of both the accession process and the logic of its own internal rule of law.