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Mainstream, VOL LV No 8 New Delhi February 11, 2017

Turkey’s bid to join the EU: Have we reached a Point of No-Return?

Sunday 12 February 2017

by Sanjal Shastri

The year 2016 has been a testing year for Turkey’s relations with the European Union (EU). With Austria’s Foreign Minister threatening to freeze talks regarding Turkey’s EU membership bid, irreparable damage might be done to the relationship between the two sides. Turkey, a land that is described as a natural meeting point between the East and the West, is increasingly finding itself out of favour in Europe. This commentary attempts to look at the possible fallouts of the turbulent year in EU-Turkey ties. Has an irreparable damage been done to Turkey’s membership bid? And finally what could we expect in 2017?

The migrant deal inked in March was the high point in EU-Turkey relations in 2016. While many critics lambasted the deal for its total disregard for human rights, the fact that the two groups were able to come to the agreement was a major milestone in Turkey’s attempt to join the EU. From this high point in March, the journey has gone steadily downwards, now threatening to permanently derail Turkey’s bid for EU membership.

For Turkey, 2016 has been a particularly testing year. A series of terror attacks and an attempted coup has pushed President Erdogan’s government to employ emergency powers to deal with the situation. It is the use of emergency powers that has been the bone of contention in the EU. From the alleged ill-treatment of the deputy leader of Turkey’s parliament in Germany to the many verbal battles between the two sides, several pressure-points have arisen. Ultimately, the EU voted to freeze all talks of Turkey’s membership bid, which is where the situation currently stands. What could possibly be the fallout of this tension?

The immediate victim of this could be the migrant deal the two sides struck in March. President Erdogan has already sent feelers that he would not hesitate to scrap the deal as things spiral out of control. Much more than a battle over the use of emergency powers, for President Erdogan, this has become an us-versus-them situation. In such conditions, pragmatism and foresight fall prey to jingoism and hyper-nationalism. Looking at how things have panned out over the past few months, one cannot but fear that the migrant deal would be the first victim in the whole process.

Scrapping the migrant deal would have drastic consequences across Europe. The influx of migrants has been a very volatile topic across the 27 EU member-states. Right-wing parties in several countries, including France, Germany and Austria, had been receiving a lot of support for their anti-migrant stand. The migrant deal put breaks on the number of migrants entering Europe, which halted the growth in popularity of the various Right-wing parties. With elections coming up next year, the return of a large number of migrants to anywhere near the 2015 numbers, will mean that Right-wing parties will begin to get more support. Popular support for Angela Merkel, which had fallen in late 2015, had picked up again after a fall in the number of refugees. If there is an increase in the number of refugees, it may seriously damage Merkel’s chances of getting re-elected.

With Turkey’s future with the EU in jeopardy, there could be changes in the regional balance of power and security calculations. Currently Turkey, which is a member of the NATO, is a crucial ally of the West. The US and EU have been cooperating closely with Turkey in the fight against the ISIS. If the tensions with the EU continue, Turkey will be pushed to look for a future alliance somewhere else. There have already been signs that the Turkish leadership has begun to look elsewhere. Talks have commenced over a possible partnership with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The last thing the EU would want is for Turkey to move towards Russia. A possible Turkey, Iran, Russia and Syria alliance will not be a bright possibility for the EU. While we are still very far away from getting there, if things deteriorate further between the EU and Turkey, this possible re-alignment would not be too farfetched.

The question that thus arises is: have the ties of the EU with Turkey gone to a point of no-return? There is still some light at the end of the tunnel. European leaders like Angela Merkel understand the importance of the migrant deal in the upcoming elections. They realise that pushing Turkey too far will jeopardise the migrant deal. The hope is, therefore, that some sort of understanding would be reached over the next couple of months. There is a lot at stake for the EU to mend fences with Turkey. That being said, the outcome of the French, German and Dutch elections next year will have a lot to say. If the Right-wing parties come out stronger, chances are that Turkey will be pushed beyond a point of no-return. This, however, depends on the Right-wing parties winning a significant number of votes in the upcoming elections. As of today, there is, as mentioned earlier, some light at the end of the tunnel.

For many in the EU, Turkey’s bid to join the Union has always been a very contentious issue. Despite constant tensions with Greece and Cyprus, promising progress had been made. But 2016 has brought about doubts if such a membership would ever be possible. A debate over emergency powers adopted by President Erdogan is quickly turning into an us-versus-them debate. It puts the all-important migrant deal between the two sides in jeopardy. If this does happen, Europe may again witness an influx of migrants, which will have an impact on the elections planned next year in Germany, the Netherlands and France. Turkey, which has already begun looking for greener pastures with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, may be forced to look towards Russia for a possible alliance. A change of this sort is bound to have serious consequences for the security calculations in the region. While a lot that could go wrong has gone wrong, a point of no-return has not yet been reached as far as the EU and Turkey are concerned. For the EU, there is a lot at stake and one should not be surprised if a deal is struck between the two sides in early 2017.

The author is an Academic Associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He regularly writes about issues linked to the Middle East and South Asia. He can be contacted at sshastri93[at] gmail.com

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