A new future for Turkey-EU relations

By Dr Adem Kumcu, President of UNITEE – The New European Business Confederation

Few relationships in history have been as complex as the one between Turkey and the European Union. After all, Turkey is an important ally inside the Nato alliance, a candidate for the accession to the Eu and an important economic hub. Furthermore, more than 6 million Turks live in one of the Eu Member States. This connection is not only engraved in history: today Turkey encompasses all the major current international events, from the European economic challenges to the fight against international terrorism and the Islamic State, Energy issues and – last but not least – European identity itself.

Nevertheless, relationships between Brussels and Ankara have rarely experienced as a difficult moment as today. Since 2013 and the Turkish government’s response to Gezi Park protests, the political and economic unrest in the country has taken a toll on the accession negotiations started in 2005. The current situation puts us in a position to ask ourselves a question: how can the relationship between Turkey and the EU be revived?

Indeed, a quick solution is required. The problem is, at the moment the situation does not look rosy. The Eu institutions have followed with concerns the developments in the country: in its Progress Report 2015, the European Parliament showed its concern for the ’backsliding of democratic reforms’, warning that Turkey currently does not meet the EU’s expectations for a candidate country. The European Commission echoed these concerns, by pointing out how «the government’s response to allegations of corruption targeting high-level personalities, including members of the government and their families, raised serious concerns over the independence of judiciary and the rule of law.»

The Turkish government has responded by accusing the EU of ‘islamophobia’ and looking for alternative diplomatic routes. The most worrying development is the request to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Sco), in a move that will put Turkey closer to China and Russia. It does not come as a surprise, then, that the already battered accession negotiations have been put on hold.

Does this mean a rapprochement between Brussels and Ankara should be dismissed as a far-fetched dream? I might sound too optimistic, but I believe the time of desperation has not come yet. Sure, the obstacles are many. Nevertheless, Turkey and the Eu are too important for each other, and have too many overlapping interests, not to proceed with some form of co-operation. It is my belief, as President of Unitee, that cooperation with Turkey should continue where possible, notwithstanding the freeze on the accession negotiations.

The belief is shared by the European Commission. The aim is to keep the collaboration open where possible, by not only focusing on the accession process but trying to support progress in other areas. Among those, I would indicate three that look particularly promising: energy, foreign affairs and security and, most importantly, trade.

a) Energy

Having a secure and sustainable source of energy certainly represents one of the main issues for the Eu. As such, it offers opportunities for long-term engagement, especially in a time when pipes from Russia have become increasingly unreliable due to the protracted instability in Ukraine. Given its special geographic position, Turkey plays a key role as regional trade hub, bridging European markets to Middle Eastern and Caspian ones. In this sense, a stronger Eu-Turkey partnership is clearly desirable for both sides, as has been confirmed by the launching of the High Level Energy Dialogue earlier this year. In this vein, the recent (March 2015) launch of the construction of the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (Tanap) has a crucial meaning for Europe, as it shows Turkey’s key role in diversifying European gas supplies.

b) Foreign Affairs and Security

The tragic events currently taking place in the Middle East have highlighted even more one fact already known to be true: not only Turkey is the second biggest army in the Nato alliance; due to its position, its history and its resources, it also is a fundamental geostrategic ally in many of the crises engulfing today’s world. What is more, the current geopolitical crisis in bordering Syria and Iraq, generating the most serious refugee crisis since the Balkan Wars, has Turkey as its epicentre: Ankara is currently hosting 2 million refugees, a number that makes Eu countries pale in comparison. In such a situation, it is not only advisable for the Eu and Turkey to work together; it is necessary.

That is why it is a good and promising signal that, after some years of hinting at establishing alliances alternative to the West, finally Ankara has decidedly reaffirmed its belonging to the West and Nato: the first and most resounding example of this has been the decision to join the anti-Islamic State coalition, followed by actions against the Islamic State’s position in Syria at the end of July.

It is too early to say whether this repositioning is made to last or is just an opportunistic choice, as the contemporary actions against the Pkk in Iraq might suggest. But, all things considered, it is vital for the Eu to sustain Turkey’s effort, by reaffirming the common fight against terrorism. Furthermore, far from being the only sufferer from the refugee crisis, the Eu has the moral duty to support Ankara in its reception of its huge number of refugees.

A first step in the right direction, showing how the Eu and Turkey can cooperate on security, has been taken with the entering into force of the Eu-Turkey readmission agreement on 1st October 2014 and the parallel start of the visa liberalisation.

c) Economy and trade

Finally, the area that bears the most promises of positive developments in the Eu-Turkish relationship is the economy. Turkey finds itself engulfed in a serious economic crisis, in part due to external factors but also connected to political uncertainty, requiring bold reforms: in the short term, to increase the transparency and restore the rule of law, allowing business to regain its trust. And in the long term, Turkey should undergo comprehensive reforms to foster its economic growth in a sustainable way.

The Eu could help provide part of the solution. Unitee’s experience has shown that economic exchanges play a privileged role in bringing countries and societies together. In this respect, few economies are more integrated than Turkey and the Eu’s: the Union is the first trade partner for Ankara. Also the opposite applies: for the Eu Turkey represents a key trade partner, providing it with a net revenue of more 20 thousands million Euros a year.

It is exactly in these data that the main path is indicated: integrating economies through trade today can serve as a shortcut for favouring better political relationships tomorrow. Therefore, it is in this spirit that the recent proposal of renewing the 20-year-old Eu-Turkey Customs Union represents very good news. The modernisation would bring new sectors, like public procurement and services, into the agreement, thus allowing it to be more respondent to the needs of today’s economy. As a consequence, it will bring about a closer dialogue on macro-economic measures, as proven last January when the European Commission put forward a proposal for a new ‘Eu-Turkey Business Roundtable’.

From what has been said so far, it is possible to draw some conclusions and propose an answer to the question of how can relations between Turkey and the EU be revived. What appears is that results are mixed. If we base our judgement on whether Turkey will soon become part of the Eu, it is clear that many obstacles from both sides are visible to everyone. Much is left to a currently scarce political will to solve these tangles.

Nevertheless, there are still areas for collaboration, made necessary by the strategic mutual relevance of Ankara and Brussels and by the overlapping of both entities’ interests. And among them, the single most important action is to increase trade and economic exchanges.

Working together in small steps, towards achievable objectives, will help solve some of the challenges that are currently engulfing the Mediterranean and Middle East region. But in doing so, the Eu should not lose sight of the final objective: accession. Establishing a constant flow of goods, services and ideas will make the transfer of values easier.

In the end, there are no doubts that Turkey belongs to Europe. In the words of Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, «I see Turkey’s Future as being in Europe, as one of many prosperous, tolerant, democratic countries». Turkey and the Eu both already have the tools to make it happen. They just have to acknowledge that.

This article originally appeared on the print edition of The New European magazine, #7. You can read it here.