On Turkey

Is the EU Ready for Possible Political Change in Turkey?

February 14, 2022
Selim Yenel
6 min read
Photo credit: Ali Efe Yilmaz / Shutterstock.com
The relationship between Turkey and the European Union is at a crossroads yet again.

It has taken steps backwards for various reasons since the July 2016 coup attempt in the country, and this trajectory has remained unchanged despite efforts to reverse it. The EU seems to be waiting to see the results of the presidential election in Turkey, which will be held in June 2023 at the latest, and does not intend to take any action until then. The nine paragraphs devoted to the country in the December 2021 European Council conclusions confirm this. To sum up the situation, Turkey is subjected to heavy criticism and the onus to correct the situation is put on it.

Turkey was finally mentioned as a candidate after the EU had avoided doing so in European Council conclusions over the past several years. However, beyond the usual criticism on fundamental rights, freedom of expression, the Cyprus issue, and other matters, the accession process is frozen. The December conclusions do not even mention visa exemptions for Turkish citizens and the modernization of the Customs Union still faces hurdles. The relationship is sliding into one that could be described as purely transactional.

For the last year and a half, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel nearly every month, and he has had regular talks with EU Council and European Commission presidents as well as several other EU leaders. There has been increased dialogue but there has not been any progress on the vital points cited above.  

It seems that the EU believes that the next presidential election might bring a change in Turkey.

It seems that the EU believes, for the first time in many years, that the next presidential election might bring a change in Turkey. But is it ready for such change? As most of its expectations would be met, the EU should start preparing to meet Turkey’s.

Turkey’s main demands for the EU are the resumption of accession negotiations, visa exemptions for all Turkish nationals, updating the Customs Union, and increased dialogue at all levels. For its part, the EU prioritizes the fight against illegal immigration and terrorism. It has also set conditions for addressing the first three of Turkey’s demands. These are improving fundamental rights and freedoms, progress in areas such as the rule of law, and relations with Greece and southern Cyprus within the framework of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

If there is a transfer of power after the election in Turkey, it is possible that there may be progress in fundamental rights and freedoms. In foreign policy, it would not be surprising to see short- and medium-term improvement in any of Turkey’s relationships with other countries that are currently tense. At least Ankara’s rhetoric should become softer. On the other hand, Turkey’s current policies on Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean are likely to remain. There are certain lines that no president or government could cross without obtaining tangible returns.

Relative Progress in Selected Areas

With a change in power, the four issues listed above could experience the following changes.

Negotiations with the EU can be resumed on those accession chapters (public procurement, competition, social policy, and employment) that are not subject to political conditionality.

Most of the EU’s six outstanding criteria for visa exemption can be met. However, there is a high probability of obstruction by southern Cyprus regarding judicial cooperation with all EU members. But, even if Turkey overcomes this and the European Commission reports that all 72 criteria are met, the need for the approval of the member states and the European Parliament will make for a difficult process.

The EU has placed progress on fundamental rights and freedom of expression as a condition for updating the Customs Union. It also wants progress on at least some of the technical irritants encountered with the current version; for example, regarding certification and testing requirements for goods imported by Turkey. Turkey also has issues with the EU’s anti-dumping investigations on some of its steel products. These can be overcome with some give and take. Furthermore, the Customs Union is expected to be implemented between Turkey and all EU members, including southern Cyprus. If the EU considers its own interests, it could put this political condition for the conclusion of talks for the Customs Union rather than for opening them. Beginning the talks and getting some traction would be an incentive for the EU and Turkey to move ahead on other matters.

It would be useful to follow up on the agreement to have more dialogue by strengthening contacts and dialogue in several sectors such as the economy, transport, energy, and the environment. Since becoming an accession candidate, Turkey was invited to several of the EU’s informal foreign affairs meetings. But this stopped as the relationship soured, and the country has not been invited to any of them for the last three years. Resuming this practice would be mutually beneficial.

Political Will Is Required

As a result of all of the above, one should expect less tension and more progress in Turkey-EU relations with a change of power in Ankara. However, the Cyprus issue will remain, making it difficult for relations to reach a certain level and then go further. Thus, both sides should keep expectations at a realistic level and set policy accordingly, even if their respective demands are high.

Both sides should keep expectations at a realistic level and set policy accordingly.

It would also be beneficial to work to convince public opinion in the EU and Turkey of the need for some positive developments. Actors on both sides will try to prevent progress. Though many support improving Turkey-EU relations, many others oppose any kind of association. Turkey-bashing has gone on for too long and EU leaders should change their tone when talking about the relationship. If a new government in Turkey takes important steps in the areas of fundamental rights and freedoms, which the public expects, there could be a honeymoon period that should be encouraged before its effects pass. Several promises made by the EU regarding the 2016 migration agreement with Turkey but not fulfilled—such as re-energizing the accession process, modernizing the Customs Union, and the voluntary resettlement of Syrian refugees legally residing in Turkey—should be implemented.

If the coming presidential election does not result in a change in power, a possibility that should certainly be considered, the EU will have to rethink its wait-and-see policy—if it maintains its current stance, both sides will eventually be harmed. There is a profound lack of trust. In this case, the only issue that could yield a positive effect on the relationship is again the Customs Union. Whichever government is established after the election, the Cyprus issue will be the major sticking point. Thus, for relations to improve under a continuation of the current government, at least to some extent, as mentioned above, it would be wise for the EU to remove its political preconditions for updating the Customs Union and require them only for their conclusion.

The relationship between Turkey and the EU is too important to let it slip into disarray. No matter the result of the election, it should be based on trust, respect, and empathy—three traits that are now sorely lacking.

Selim Yenel is the president of Global Relations Forum. He previously served as a diplomat, including as ambassador and permanent delegate of Turkey to the European Union and as undersecretary at the Ministry of EU Affairs.