Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Kurds will not be able to find food when Turkish trucks stop going to the region
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Kurds will not be able to find food when Turkish trucks stop going to the region © Reuters

Having long been a strong supporter of Turkey’s EU accession bid, it truly pains me to see the poor state of Turkey-EU relations, with Turkish and European politicians exchanging insults on an almost daily basis.

All seem to be using the parlous state of Turkey’s accession bid for their own domestic political advantage. This seems to be far from the European spirit.

I supported Turkey’s bid as I truly believed that having an economically successful majority Muslim state in the EU would be the best riposte to events on 9/11 and since, and to all those arguing the case for the clash of civilisations.

I also thought that, as proved to be the case with the former communist states in eastern Europe, the drive for EU accession would be a great anchor for reform and positive change in Turkey — revamping the economy, and cementing democracy and European rights and values in the process.

But it is clear that Turkey’s bid is now in serious trouble and the whole project is at risk of failure.

It would be naive not to recognise the changing mood in Europe and globally, with the rise of nationalism, populism and a nation-first agenda, in parallel to a growing aversion to globalisation, immigration and the free movement of labour.

Mass immigration is straining the political and social fabric of Europe and exposing fissures which were perhaps never that far from the surface.

Tensions have been further exposed by a decade of economic flux which followed the global financial crisis of 2008. Intolerance is on the rise, and politicians are defensive on issues such as immigration and all too often happy to hide behind cheap sound bites rather than try to find more complex and difficult policy solutions.

A likely casualty is the EU enlargement process itself. It will be difficult to secure ratification across EU27 for the likes of Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and BiH, and then Turkey.

Any aspiring EU members are likely to face a repeat of the referendum in the Netherlands on the EU’s Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine, which ended in defeat, even though there was no nod to Ukraine’s eventual EU membership.

True, the Netherlands’ political elites secured a “fix” to get the Ukraine AA/DCFTA over the line, but I doubt that similar options would be possible for the ratification of new EU entrants — a much bigger deal all round. Getting future enlargement over the line will be acutely difficult, especially with respect to Turkey.

Longstanding opponents to Turkish accession are quick to pin the blame on faults at home in Turkey — in particular, the erosion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law since at least 2013; the Gezi Park protests; and the purges that followed the failed coup attempt in July 2016; and, more recently, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move to concentrate power around an Executive Presidency, as affirmed in his referendum win in April this year.

It is difficult to argue against the deterioration in politics in Turkey, at least since 2013, with rising geopolitical tensions across Turkey’s borders and increased polarisation at home.

But to be fair to Turkey, since at least 2010 it has received very mixed messages from Europe, which perhaps played a part in weakening the EU reform anchor at home.

I would highlight the focus from Angela Merkel in Germany and former president Nicolas Sarkozy in France on offering Turkey a “privileged partnership”, which appeared to all as a kind of second class EU membership, which, in actuality it was.

Indeed, from this time, Turkey began to argue, with some justification in my view, that the EU was not really serious about Turkey’s accession and that, whatever reforms Turkey rolled out, its membership would be vetoed by France, Germany, Austria, et al.

As a result, since around 2010 opinion polls suggested a moderating in enthusiasm in Turkey for EU accession. This coincided — driven, I believe, by the cooling relationship with Europe — with moves by the Erdogan administration to diversify trade and investment relations into the Middle East, Russia/CIS and Africa — there was a definitive move away from Europe.

It might also be argued that around this time, the EU-related reform zeal also began to moderate — at least after the 2011 elections in Turkey, but then accelerated after the Gezi Park protests.

Western reaction to the Gezi protests, and then to the coup attempt, accentuated the Erdogan administration’s break from Europe. I think there was a sense that the EU was a one-way stream of criticism, not willing to understand the Turkish context (eg around the failed coup) and in return for little benefit — especially if the EU was not serious about eventual membership.

Indeed, the annual and typically critical EU accession progress reports served to damage the Erdogan administration’s standing at home, especially when failings on human rights, the rule of law, a free press, etc, were highlighted in detail. The administration begin to ask itself what exactly were the benefits of the accession drive — especially as foreign investment into Turkey was increasingly becoming decoupled from that very same agenda.

On the latter point, it was noticeable from 2010 to perhaps 2013/14 that the weakening of the accession bid seemed to have little impact on foreign investment flows. An increasingly common riposte from foreign investors was that they invested in Turkey on the good, standalone Turkish economic growth story, not particularly on the EU accession anchor.

I would argue that the weakening commitment to Turkey’s EU accession — first from Germany, France, Austria, et al and then reciprocally from Turkey — meant the EU reform anchor weakened and this accentuated Turkey’s drift away from European norms and values. From the economic policy perspective, I think it is fair to say there was a general deterioration in the reform agenda some time in the AKP’s third term in office in 2011-2015, centred round the Gezi Park protests in 2013. This has ended up damaging the investment environment and inward investment over the past two to three years at least.

Where does this leave Turkey’s EU accession bid?

Commitment is sadly lacking, with both sides weighing up the pros and cons of a more permanent break but still mindful that the other party is a key geopolitical, trading and investment partner.

To put this in perspective, the EU accounts for about half of Turkey’s total trade, while Turkey is the EU’s fourth-largest trading partner, after China, the US and Russia. In 2003—2017, the EU accounted for 72 per cent of Turkey’s FDI inflows to the tune of $98bn. And, despite a drop over the past two years, the EU still accounts for about 40 per cent of tourism flows to Turkey.

Geopolitically, Turkey has been a linchpin Nato ally for 70-plus years, with the second largest standing army in the alliance, and has been a bulwark for European peace, stability and security in the post second world war era. Whatever the Austrians may say now, it was Turkish troops who kept communists from the gates of Vienna and now, through the Turkish-EU migrant deal, are keeping a flood of migrants from pushing through the same gates.

Turkey is a bulwark against instability from the Middle East and has played a critical part, through the $6bn deal reached in 2015, in stemming refugee flows from Syria and beyond. Meanwhile, Turkey is becoming an increasingly important energy transit hub towards the EU and is a key player in the Cyprus peace talks.

Both sides understand the importance of economic and geopolitical ties but are mindful of the cost of maintaining accession talks in their current uncertain and unstable state. Lack of clarity is causing angst and tensions. The Erdogan administration finds it useful to highlight EU double standards in the fight against terrorism — over the PKK, the Gulen movement and the YPG in Syria — which plays well to the domestic audience.

Turkey has also been accused of interfering in European elections, through its outreach to large ethnic Turkish populations in the Netherlands and Germany. European politicians have played the nationalist card, stoking anti-Turkish feeling, and politicians in Turkey have reciprocated. This is a dangerous state of affairs, risking rising xenophobia across Europe, but also risking damage to a key geopolitical and economic relationship.

Both sides might appreciate a new orientation but neither wants to make the first move. I think the fear in Brussels is that Mr Erdogan would use any change in its position as a stick to beat his opponents at home and would move even faster to a more centralising political system — arguing that the EU had never been serious.

In some European capitals there is a desire not to give up on those in Turkey who are still committed to the European goal. There are also fears as to how Turkey would re-orient without the EU anchor — towards Russia, perhaps, weakening Nato and European security in the process, albeit Ankara’s move closer to Moscow has already been evident over the past year and was reflected this week in the confirmed purchase of S400 missiles.

As for Mr Erdogan, I think he is reluctant to go down as the Turkish president who finally broke from Europe and the accession bid — which could see the AKP lose some votes and ultimately damage his election chances in 2019.

It is ironic that while the EU-Turkey relationship is at a low, the UK-Turkish relationship is going through something of a renaissance.

Over the past 12-18 months Ankara has been pleased by the UK’s nuanced and more diplomatic response to the failed coup. Both sides view the Brexit negotiations and, potentially, a new post-Brexit trade deal for the UK, as a potential blueprint for Turkey should all sides agree a break from EU accession.

Ankara would rather like similar terms for Turkey — a Custom Union II++ — and, perhaps, a bilateral trade deal with the UK to boot. It would be important for Turkey to get the same terms as the UK or similar, to not carry the same stigma as the privileged partnership.

It seems that Brexit is being viewed as an opportunity and as a model for a new relationship between Turkey and the EU. For Mr Erdogan and, I think, for many European politicians, this would be an ideal scenario.

Much more rests on the future of the Brexit talks — also a reason for the UK to big up its ties with Turkey. The EU will want to negotiate an end to Turkey’s accession bid, but keep Turkey anchored to the EU in some way. A favourable Brexit model applied also to Turkey (Turkxit?) could be just the ticket. This obviously depends on a successful Brexit.

Timothy Ash is senior sovereign strategist at Bluebay Asset Management.

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