The Rift Between EU and Turkey: The Old Wine in a New Bottle

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The Rift Between EU and Turkey: The Old Wine in a New Bottle

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Turkey’s long journey of Europeanisations is full of twists and turns. When it comes to the historical roots, hundred years old modernization in Turkish history is generally associated with the idea of “the West” as an imagination, stereotyping, and idealization.  In this sense, Turkey is one of the central location where the world experiment on the domestic impact of the Westernization took place.

As an idea, “the West” and “Westernization” becomes “Europeanization” in the 2000s and since then, we have seen another version of that experiment. These episodes of Turkish Europeanization sometimes expanded and accelerated and sometimes restrained and slowed-downed.

To understand the essence of today’s problems in Turkey-EU relations, we have to understand the main dynamics of the relation. In this sense, there are five systemically important dynamics, within EU-Turkey relations.

  • EU as an incentive for political reforms: Historically, EU has been an external anchor for political reform in Turkey. That is, as long as Turkey has kept reforming, joining in the club exists as a ‘golden carrot’ while joining in the club remains attainable, Turkey has kept reforming. These two different processes were closely linked to each other. That is, without a clear path to membership for the club, European magic to transform Turkish politics is not working and assuming or expecting to work is just naïve, if nothing else. Today, EU’s credibility as a catalyzing factor for modernization in Turkey is at its historical low for different reasons. First of all, anti-Turkey coalitions have been gaining ground in European capitals. Most importantly, many other issues, such as migration, nationalism, poor economic outlook etc. are associated with Turkey and Turkey’s accession to the bloc by European populists. Furthermore, Turkey’s traditional allies start either turning back or becoming more anti-Turkish over the years due to domestic politics. Moreover, EU has long been experiencing an increasing enlargement fatigue. Since the latest rounds of enlargement, the EU’s capacity to absorb new members and find out innovative ways to cope with crowding-effects, has become one of the top-priority of the bloc. However, over the years, it becomes quite evident that EU cannot effectively cope with the problems stemming from enlargement. As new types of risks and challenges require different kinds of institutional design, 27 (assuming the UK is already out of the picture) EU’s ability to cope with today’s mass risks and challenges effectively is hindered. In this sense, new memberships are not very much welcomed on the continent. When it comes to Turkey, besides Turkey’s democratic credentials, Muslim-majority populations and level of development, EU’s own enlargement fatigue should be considered
  • EU’s decline as a normative power: EU as an international actor is often characterized as a normative power that supports the values such as democracy, human rights, freedoms, etc. However, over the last few years, EU countries failed to demonstrate the strength to uphold European values on many occasions from Arab Spring to migration crisis. When it comes to Turkey, especially, European weak and twisted response after the failed coup attempted on July 15, 2016, was the most disturbing event on this front for Turkish policymakers. Especially, European attitudes towards migrants hinder EU’s normative power. Given twists and hypocrisy in European capitals over democracy, human rights, freedoms, EU’s ability show a respected normative power diminished.
  • EU’s as a regional integration: EU as an institution has entered a process of disintegration, which is evident in Brexit, and rising right-and-left-wing nationalism throughout the continent, fading authority and respect for EU institutions, increasing democratic deficiency and weakening organizational effectiveness have all augmented disintegration of the bloc. Given power struggles and political uncertainties throughout the continent, this mode of operation seems not vanishing. However, as EU disintegrates, its capacity to be the center of the gravity in Turkey’s own agenda evaporates.
  • Turkey as a pawn-country: Facing with multiple threats stemming from numbers of terrorist organizations, failed coup attempts, ongoing war in Syria and Iraq, economic and political difficulties, series of elections, democratization and political reforms turn to be difficult agendas in Turkish political contexts. However, the most important thing is that Turkey is no more the country that EU exposes its soft power easily. With growing economic growth, extending its reach into different countries from Africa to Asia and Latin America, Turkey is now not a pawn country in this relation. Therefore, as long as the EU accepts this reality and forges better and equal relations by stopping lecturing Turkey on things even its own members don’t uphold, the prospect of Euro-Turco relations would not be bright.
  • Turkey-EU bilateral relation: Last but not least, as me with two other Turkish colleagues pointed out in a recent op-ed, as the EU’s institutional appeal and capacity has been weakening, Turkey has faced a new European front, where it has to deal with individual member-states, many of which are not friendly, if not hostile to Turkey’s accession to EU, rather than individual EU institutions, especially the European Commission. That is, the essence of the relation has turned to be multi-actoral and multifrontal but not bilateral between key EU institutions.

All in all, Turkey-EU relations has plunged into new depth over the last year. Yet, we should accept that this relation was never easy-going historically and traditionally. That’s why it is somehow new wine in an old bottle in terms of difficulties.

Photo: PropertyTurkey

Hakan Mehmetcik
Currently, Hakan works as a research assistant at the Department of International Relations of Marmara University, in Turkey. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the department of Politics and International Relations of Yildiz Technical University having graduated from the Istanbul University with a B.A. in International Relations. He has two master degrees, one in Economics from Dalarna University in Sweden, and one in Eurasian Studies from Uppsala University in Sweden. His main research interests are security studies, regionalism, peace and conflicts studies, and International Relations Theories in broader perspectives.

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