The EU-Turkey Summit and future prospects for the EU-Turkey Relations
EU-Turkish flag

Re-energizing” - that was the term used to describe the prospects for the EU-Turkey relations. Since the beginning of the accession process, ten years ago, few things have changed: Turkey’s progress towards membership has been slow, the membership itself is uncertain and the quest for terms and initiatives to break the deadlocks seem to be recurring.

However impressive the uncertainty and stagnation in Turkey’s EU accession process, the persistence in this process is equally notable. Neither Turkey, nor the EU seem willing to abandon it. And this despite the fact that prospects for membership are less favorable than they were in 2005 – degradation of the rule of law in Turkey, EU reluctance to enlargement and opposing European public opinion towards Turkish membership.

The persistence both in Brussels and in Ankara to keep the doors open for Turkey indicates the need for cooperation and strategic partnership between the EU and Turkey. Even if the membership does not move forward, EU cannot ignore Turkey and Turkey cannot ignore EU. Both are “doomed” not only to co-exist, but also cooperate. At this point, the refugee/migrant issue seems to dominate in the agenda but there are also a series of issues where cooperation seems imperative – and mutually beneficial.

The statements made by the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are expressive for the EU-Turkey relationship and the place of Turkey within Europe. He stated: “The destiny of this continent belongs to all of us […]the future of our continent […]”. The use of us and our and the inclusion of Turkey as part of the European continent is not only indicative of how Turkey sees itself as a European nation. It also shows the close relationship and the significance of the EU for Turkey and vice versa.

However, this new momentum in Euro-Turkish relations is likely to have the same fate as the others before it and both sides may find themselves (again) in the search of new terms and initiatives. This is because the accession process does not change. The reforms in Turkey will be the ones judged for the EU membership and not the concordance of interests.

In other words, Turkey will not be accepted as an EU member exclusively on the basis of strategic, political and/or economic interests. The EU is not going to abandon its principles or back down from its conditions for membership. A Turkey that does not fulfill EU standards will not become an EU member just for the sake of interests.

The biggest challenge for the EU is how to deal with a Turkey which on the one hand has a slow and problematic accession process and on the other they have this need for cooperation in a number of issues. The answer may be the very Summit itself, the first in the highest level after many years.

EU-Turkey relations should not be considered exclusively within the accession framework, and should not be “trapped” in the accession process. Of course this process includes a wide range of crucial issues; however, it is not exhaustive and the relations should not be defined exclusively by this lengthy process.

Both Turkey and the EU should show some flexibility in the development of their relations. Turkey has to overcome its traditional reservations that any form of cooperation/partnership outside the accession framework means a “special relationship” instead of full membership. And the EU has find ways to keep Turkey closer to its influence.

The recent EU-Turkey Summit on the refugee/migrant issue can serve as an example for the future Euro-Turkish relations and how the much needed and mutually beneficial cooperation can take place – beyond the accession process: targeted cooperation on specific issues. Today is the refugee/migrant issue. Tomorrow could be energy, a coherent plan for combating terrorism or a peace process in the Middle East.

Moreover, the fact that this cooperation takes place at the highest political level has its significance. This significance comes from the symbolism. These summits hit the headlines, something that does not happen with the more “technocratic” meetings between EU and Turkish officials – despite the fact that substantial work and progress takes place exactly in these meetings. The pictures of European and Turkish leaders shaking hands and exchanging cordial comments on their relations can soothe the alienation and bring the two entities closer.

Undoubtedly, there is a momentum in Euro-Turkish relations. However, this is less about Turkey’s EU membership and more about EU-Turkey cooperation. Of course these are not isolated: the expansion of cooperation (in the model of the cooperation in the refugee/migrant issue) will have a positive impact on the prospects of Turkey’s EU membership. However it is not enough for membership. The opposite may happen as well: exclusion of Turkey and stagnation in the accession process may undermine Euro-Turkish cooperation.

A full EU membership for Turkey is still far away. Yet the problems and the need for cooperation are present. Perhaps this renewed momentum in the Euro-Turkish relations should be more focused on cooperation instead of accession. Otherwise, we may once again start searching for new terms and words to revive Euro-Turkish relations. And while diplomacy may have a rich vocabulary, time is of the essence.

Author: Dimitrios Dagdeverenis for Intermediakt