This article was published in Arab News on January 8, 2018.
Turkey’s unclear path towards the EU
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Paris last Friday and met with French President Emmanuel Macron, discussing at length his country’s relations with the EU and its hopes of accession to the bloc. The divergent approaches of the two leaders were then voiced at the press conference that followed the talks. Macron made it clear that “recent developments and choices do not allow any progression of the process in which we are engaged” and said it would be more logical to discuss why Turkish accession was not possible, rather than trying to achieve it. Erdogan complained that the EU had left Turkey “waiting outside the door.”
A sizeable portion of the Turkish population firmly believes that their country deserves to be part of Europe. Therefore, a collapse of the accession process would have a political price in Turkey and Erdogan does not want to be regarded as the leader who caused this.
The divergences between the parties could not be eliminated at the meeting, particularly their approaches to democracy and its link with fundamental rights and freedoms. France and Turkey disagree on where the dividing line between freedom of expression and an act of terror lies. The EU does not consider a non-violent expression of opinion an act of terror, while Turkey’s anti-terror law considers, for instance, a sentence in a columnist’s article as evidence of them being a member of a terrorist organization. Responding to a journalist, Erdogan assimilated such columnists to gardeners who irrigate the garden where terrorists grow, while Macron said that freedom of expression is indivisible; an opinion, if it does not incite people to commit a crime and does not promote terrorism, should not be punished. He mentioned that Erdogan was once put in jail for reciting a poem, alluding to the non-violent nature of this act. This approach to freedom of expression was one of the conditions that the EU put forward for opposing the introduction of visa facilitation for Turks.
France is not the only country opposing Turkey’s EU accession. Austria is determined to block the process, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted for years that Turkey should be given “privileged partnership” status rather than full membership. Many political parties in the Netherlands are also against Turkey’s accession and the President of the European Council, Jean-Claude Juncker, has grave concerns.
Erdogan’s recent meeting with France’s Macron reveals that key differences between the parties could not be eliminated, particularly their approaches to democracy and its link with fundamental rights and freedoms.
However, Erdogan and Macron emphasized that Turkey and Europe do still need each other. While this may not be strictly true and the EU could achieve anything it wants in Turkey’s neighborhood without asking for Ankara’s assistance, its goals could be achieved with fewer resources and less acrimony if it did work in partnership with Turkey.
Erdogan and Macron also discussed cooperation in the fight against terrorism, Syria, Palestine and Libya. The two countries agreed to work together to prevent Daesh terrorists returning to France through Turkey.
Both sides are willing to cooperate in Syria, but France seems to have acquiesced to the possibility of President Bashar Assad’s continuation in power until the transition to democracy, while Erdogan is in favor of his stepping aside as soon as possible. There is also a divergent view regarding the Astana process. While France believes that the talks in Kazakhstan and Sochi were useful at the beginning, they have now completed their task and should be discontinued. Turkey believes that the Astana and Sochi processes are not a substitute for the UN Geneva process, rather they are complementary.
Apart from these thorny issues, the talks went smoothly in other areas.
An agreement was signed between the Turkish Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry and French-Italian company Eurosam aimed at developing surface-to-air missiles. This agreement is important because it may help to counterbalance NATO countries’ objection to Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. What is hoped for with this move is the transfer of missile technology to Turkey, demonstrating that it is not drifting away from the Euro-Atlantic community and is willing to cooperate with NATO countries on an equal footing. NATO has contributed a lot to the modernization of Turkey’s military, but it also contributed to delaying the development of Turkey’s own defense industry.
France opposes the US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, since Turkey is one of the leading critics of the move, the two countries have ample opportunity to cooperate.
Turkey was aware that its path towards Europe was narrowing, but it is still unclear whether it is closed for good or merely suspended until Turkey decides to carry out the reforms required for EU membership. This meeting in Paris gave Erdogan the opportunity to hear it from the horse’s mouth.