Reconnecting Türkiye and the European Union
The relationship between Türkiye and the European Union is in a state of flux. The two sides have been far apart on many issues at certain points in the past, but they have found a way to come back together. However, the relationship suffered enormously after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government. Despite some meagre efforts to resolve the issues, the situation went from bad to worse as Türkiye’s relationships with Greece and Cyprus deteriorated. Harsh rhetoric did not help.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has begun to have some effect on this situation. Putin’s war of aggression led Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership, and this created an opportunity for Türkiye to demonstrate some influence within the alliance by objecting to their applications.
While this issue was to some extent resolved at NATO’s Vilnius Summit of July 11–12, 2023, Ankara made a surprise announcement shortly after, adding a condition for its approval of Sweden’s NATO accession: re-starting Türkiye’s EU accession process. EU leaders immediately shot down this demand.
The dire economic situation in Türkiye has forced Ankara to make changes in its foreign policy since the end of 2020, as Erdoğan needed stronger ties with the EU. However, Ankara’s rhetoric against the West and the EU’s rigid stance reinforced mutual distrust.
It has become a cliché to say that the EU and Türkiye need each other. Türkiye’s geopolitical importance is apparent in the role it has played as mediator in the Russia–Ukraine war, as well as in its influence in the Middle East. The migration crisis of 2015–16 also underlined the interdependence of Türkiye and the EU.
However, especially since the coup attempt, Türkiye has gone back on its reforms in the areas of fundamental rights and the rule of law. This backsliding has prevented movement on Türkiye’s accession process, as well as on other processes such as the modernization of the Customs Union and visa liberalization. The association with the EU has turned transactional and has been relegated to bilateral relations with member states.
Although Erdoğan has repeatedly called for improving relations, he shows no sign of addressing the core issues that hinder such a development. When asked at a press conference following the Vilnius Summit about the rule of law in Türkiye, Erdoğan said, “Türkiye has no problems with democracy, rights, and freedoms.”
European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations Olivér Várhelyi’s recent visit to Ankara provided little promise for the future of the relationship. To move relations forward, Türkiye must carry through on reforms in the areas of fundamental rights and the rule of law—prerequisites for real progress.
The accession talks have remained stagnant, however. Of the 35 chapters that each candidate negotiates with the EU, only sixteen have been opened with Türkiye, and none since June 2016. When EU leaders speak of the enlargement of the union, they rarely mention Türkiye. And although the recent rhetoric coming from Turkish leaders affirms the importance of closer ties with the EU, there is no follow-up action. The words remain hollow. And as long as the Cyprus question remains unresolved, Greece and Greek Cyprus will block Türkiye’s accession.
Although there are minimum conditions, in the end it is the political situation that is decisive. The most recent example is the granting of candidate status to Ukraine only a few months after it applied. The assumption is that they will start accession talks next year, following an anticipated decision at the December European Council meeting. The talks may take several years, but at least Ukraine has been provided a clear perspective.
There has never been such clarity for Türkiye. Moreover, even if the country fulfils every EU condition, many member states are determined to oppose its accession. Türkiye has always counted on its geostrategic location as leverage, but this has never worked with the EU. Brussels has relied on Ankara only once since the end of the Cold War, and that was during the 2015–16 migration crisis—which ultimately was resolved without the EU having to make major concessions.
In her recent state of the union speech, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described a future EU of 30 or more members. It was instructive to hear her mentioning only Ukraine, Moldova, and six Balkan states. Türkiye, already a candidate, was omitted.
In sum, unless the EU finds formulas for varying paces of integration—a change of structures—and unless Türkiye makes the necessary reforms, there will be no accession.
On the eve of his visit to the UN General Assembly, and in response to criticisms from the European Parliament, Erdoğan pointed out that Türkiye could part ways with the EU. A day later, in New York, he said, “A window of opportunity has opened for the revitalization of Türkiye-EU relations.” These contradictory statements highlight the need to establish a real dialogue between the two sides, as there is significant room for misunderstanding.
As long as Türkiye continues to declare EU membership as its goal, the relationship will remain uneven. But if the EU wants to play a global role, it must overcome the opposition of some EU members and coordinate with Türkiye. There must be a new setup in which the two sides are equal. Türkiye should put accession aside for the time being and discuss issues of common concern until the EU decides on this new structure.
EU members have asked High Representative Josep Borrell to produce a report with options for a future with Türkiye as a member. The proposals will probably call on Türkiye to fulfil a number of conditions, and it is doubtful whether accession will be mentioned. If Türkiye is truly interested in establishing a sustainable and realistic relationship with the EU, then Ankara should present its own proposals without delay.
One option is to start from the beginning. In May 2015, Türkiye and the European Commission agreed on a roadmap to modernize the Customs Union, highlighting the public procurement, service, and agriculture sectors. The roadmap could be re-worked, with green and digital economies replacing agriculture. This would not involve negotiations per se, but would initiate discussions on what to negotiate, and so could create a way forward. On visa issues, Türkiye can make changes to its legislation that in no way diminish the fight against terrorism but rather align it more with EU laws.
Regarding dialogue, Türkiye should be invited to the Gymnich meetings, informal meetings of ministers organized by each European Council presidency. The EU should also hold a summit with Ankara to freely discuss the issues at hand, and this could be used as an opportunity for the EU to show that Türkiye is still a candidate. The fact that Erdoğan presented Sweden's application for NATO membership to the parliament is a welcome sign. The EU could pick this up.
All of these steps depend on political will. From both sides.
Selim Yenel is the president of Global Relations Forum. He previously served as a diplomat, including as ambassador and permanent delegate of Türkiye to the European Union and as undersecretary at the Ministry of EU Affairs.
The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.