As Turkey and the European Union (EU) prepare to revive long-stalled ties following a stormy period, analysts are not optimistic about the move yielding any significant progress in Ankara’s accession talks and seeing it as a means to keep up appearances for mutual interests.
“Both sides have opted to continue to play the accession game,” Faruk Logoglu, a former diplomat who assumed top posts at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, told Xinhua.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met last week with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels, following months of war of words and diatribe between the two sides in the wake of a failed coup in Turkey last July.
Erdogan told Turkish media after the meeting that Turkey had been given a 12-month road map to work on for better ties and that both sides agreed to accelerate Turkey’s accession to the 28-nation bloc.
The two sides would lose economically and politically in case of an unending crisis in bilateral relations.
“Turkey cannot ignore the EU if it wants to have a strong economy,” Ilhan Uzgel, a senior analyst of international relations, told Xinhua.
For Turkey, the EU is both its biggest export market and biggest investor as far as foreign direct investments are concerned.
Ankara, which suffers from heavy debts and a low savings rate at home, desperately needs foreign money and investments to make up for its huge current account deficit.
For its part, the EU needs Turkey as a sort of shield against the instability in the volatile Middle East.
Ankara inked a deal with the union in 2015 to stop illegal migration toward Europe in return for visa-free travel for its citizens, revival of its long-stalled accession talks and financial aid for refugees in Turkey.
“The EU fears a million Syrians would flock to Europe should Turkey suspend the refugee deal, so it does not want to break ties with Turkey,” Faruk Sen, president of the Istanbul-based Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies, told Xinhua.
Turkey officially hosts around 3.6 million refugees, among them about 3.2 million Syrians. Following the deal, the number of migrants arriving in Europe via Turkey has sharply fallen.
“Keeping up appearances is the name of the current game,” said Logoglu, who argued that it is the least bad option given the need of both sides to protect their short-term interests.
According to Turkish media, Turkish and EU high-level bureaucrats will come together on June 13 to draw up a timetable for the road map on talks.
The real picture will become clearer following the talks in June, observed Sen, who previously headed the Essen-based Turkish Research Center in Germany.
Top EU officials and some Turkish cabinet ministers are expected to meet in July for political talks. In addition, ministerial-level meetings reportedly on economy and energy are scheduled for July or September.
The analysts do not think the union would be willing to boost ties with Turkey in a significant way as long as Ankara keeps the state of emergency in place and stifles freedom.
The EU has also been demanding that Ankara amend its anti-terrorism law, which the bloc says is too broad in definition, for it to conform with that of the union.
Brussels has time and again accused Ankara of continuing crackdown on dissidents, growing authoritarianism and violations of the rule of law under the emergency rule imposed days after the coup bid, as tens of thousands of civil servants, jurists, university professors have been detained or removed on statutory decrees without a court order.
“Unless and until Turkey acts in this direction, the prospect for palpable progress in accession negotiations is nil,” observed Logoglu.
Turkey needs to take important steps in both democratization and human rights if it wants to improve ties with Brussels, said Uzgel, a professor dismissed from his university post.
It is not likely the EU would open new chapters for negotiations with Turkey under the current state of conditions, echoed Sen.
“I don’t expect the 23rd and 24th chapters to be opened within the next two years. France and Cyprus are against that,” he remarked.
Turkey’s EU Minister Omer Celik repeatedly called on the EU last year to open the two chapters for talks which deal respectively with “judiciary and fundamental rights” and “justice, freedoms and security.”
The opening of the news chapters is the main target for Turkey in the upcoming talks with the bloc.
It is vitally important to Turkey for the new chapters to be opened, government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus stressed on Monday, noting topics to be prioritized in the talks will be decided by the Turkish side.
Western media reported on Tuesday that EU officials are more skeptical than Erdogan about the prospect for improving ties.
According to the report citing senior officials on condition of anonymity, the atmosphere of the meeting with Erdogan was good and constructive; but both sides almost simply restated their well-known positions.
“Any improvement in bilateral ties would depend on Erdogan’s resolving at least some of many points of contention,” the report quoted the officials as saying.
Rather revealing were remarks made by one official when asked if the EU was looking to work more with Turkey following the summit, as he replied that “We have no choice.”
“What will the two sides talk about if no new chapters will be opened?” demanded Sen, who argued that both sides are simply acting in a way to please the other to maintain ties for the sake of mutual interests.
Turkey applied to join the EU in 1987 and has been negotiating about full membership since 2005, a long process in which Ankara has often complained of unfair treatment and demanded the opening of new chapters.
Erdogan and other top officials have threatened now and then that Turkey would reconsider its bid for full membership if the EU does not grant, in line with the refugee pact, visa-free travel for Turks, and continues keeping the country at its door.
The expansion of the current Customs Union agreement, visa-free travel and financial aid promised under the refugee agreement are Turkey’s major demands from the EU.
In return, the EU demands that Ankara fulfill a total of 72 benchmarks, including the compliance of Turkey’s anti-terrorism law with the union’s criteria.
To Turkey’s ire, some EU officials and members have called in recent months for suspended accession talks on the grounds that Ankara violates the rule of law.
While admitting the prospects are not so bright, the analysts feel that Turkey should push for full EU membership still.
Under the refugee deal updated in March last year, the EU should pay Turkey 3 billion euros (about 3.37 billion U.S. dollars) for the Syrians housed in Turkey by the end of this year.
So far, the bloc has actually delivered some 800 million euros, though it is obliged to pay another 3 billion euros for projects on Syrians in Turkey next year.
Full membership for Turkey does not look possible until 2026 as the EU has not earmarked any financial resources in its next budget for such an eventuality, Sen noted.
Candidate countries get substantial financial support from Brussels as the negotiations for full membership move forward.
Arguing that Turkey should not hope for EU membership any time soon, stressed that it is important for Ankara to keep its EU orientation as far as democracy, economic growth are concerned.
In Sen’s view, Turkey should call the Customs Union agreement with the EU into question if the bloc would not admit Turkey as a full member.
Turkey is the only country that concluded a Customs Union agreement with the EU before becoming a full member.
Under the current Customs Union agreement, only industrial goods and processed agricultural products may be traded between Turkey and the EU with no customs duty.
The mechanism is expected to cover agricultural products, services and public procurements following talks between Turkey and the EU.
Turkey finds itself in a disadvantaged position due to the agreement, as any third country that concludes a free trade deal with the EU is able to export to Turkey with zero customs duty, while Ankara is not entitled to do the same with the third country as it is not a full EU member.
Logoglu feels the customs union is an area where mutually beneficial progress is possible and within reach.
Noting the ball is in the EU court, he said “the EU must set its conditions clearly for the start of negotiations, but do so without further delay.”