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Who will press the reset button first: Turkey or the EU?

By Joost Lagendijk

Since the failed coup of July 2016, Turkish president Erdogan has concentrated power in his own hands. Many of his critics have lost their jobs and the press is no longer free. Joost Lagendijk is a former member of the European Parliament and an expert on Turkey living in Istanbul. He has not been allowed to enter the country since the end of September. On April 16 this year, a referendum might give Erdogan even more power; what does this mean for Turkey’s relationship with the EU?

There has been ongoing speculation about Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union (EU) coming to an end for many years. Both parties have lost hope for a successful conclusion. Because of growing support for right-wing populists in Europe, many observers expect the EU will be the one to pull the plug; others believe that Turkey will make proposals to take a different approach this year.

Firstly, the referendum

On April 16, the people of Turkey will go back to the polls; not to elect a parliament or a president, but for a referendum to approve or reject a raft of amendments to the Turkish Constitution. Key to this is changing the current parliamentary system to a presidential one. Currently, the prime minister is the most important politician and legislative power rests with the parliament. The president’s role is more than ceremonial, but is subject to a range of restrictions. If a majority of Turkish voters agree with the proposals put forward on April 16, radical changes will be introduced from 2019. The prime minister’s office will be abolished. The president will appoint his own ministers, rule by decree on certain issues and decide when new elections are needed. Concentrating power in this way has been current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dream for a long time; he believes that Turkey will only be able to become an important player on the world stage through strong leadership, without unnecessary dissent.

Those opposing the shift to a presidential system stress that expanding the president’s powers is not the only problem; similar systems exist in other countries such as the United States. Rather, they are opposed to the lack of checks and balances under the new Turkish system. Since 2011, Erdogan has done everything he can to further limit the already limited independence of the judiciary. The media is almost entirely controlled by the president and is unable to perform the crucial task of being critical of the executive. Unlike the US, a federation of states with far-reaching powers, Turkey is a highly-centralised country, where Ankara decides everything.

Patriotic

Under normal circumstances it would be impossible to know how the referendum will turn out. Part of the electorate from Erdogan’s own governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not enamoured with the presidential dominance being put forward. These AKP deserters could join forces with the opposition to defeat the president, similarly to events around the June 2015 parliamentary election when the reforms were a key plank of the AKP’s platform; the party got just forty per cent of the vote.

Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances. Since the failed coup in July 2016, Erdogan has taken steps to make life difficult for critics of all stripes. More than 100,000 people have lost their jobs; more than 40,00 people, including almost all the country’s high-profile journalists and columnists, are in prison. Meanwhile the No campaign got off to a shaky start and is under all sorts of attacks, while an overwhelming Yes campaign will be on all TV channels until April 16, trying to convince the population that patriotic Turks have a duty to agree to these changes.

Given all of this, Erdogan will most probably win. This is important not only for future domestic relationships in Turkey; the prospect of another decade of uncontrolled power will allow Erdogan to take decisive action relating to foreign policy too, including deadlocked negotiations with the EU.

Resistance

Turkey’s negotiations on full membership of the EU began in 2005. At the time, Turkey had just spent five years making comprehensive reforms relating to democracy and human rights, bringing the country closer to the EU. Many Turks expected that these improvements would lead to a quick accession process. Negotiations, however, were undermined by disagreements about Cyprus and growing resistance to Turkish membership in Germany and France. Around 2010, the accession process slowly ground to a halt. The EU had blocked half of the negotiations, and made it clear that Turkish accession was seen as highly undesirable. Turkey took offence at this and began looking for economic and political alternatives. Despite mutual friction and open resistance, neither party was yet ready to withdraw from the process. Within the EU, this would require there to be unanimity between the Member States, which – bluntly – there isn’t. A lot of EU members still support Turkish accession, albeit as a long-term goal requiring wide-ranging reforms. Additionally, it has become clear in recent years that the EU needs Turkey to be able to solve important strategic issues; refugees, migrants, energy, relations with the Middle-East, and the fight against terrorism.

Stalemate

Over the last few years there have been regular calls in Turkey to stop negotiations with hypocritical Europeans who are never going to accept Turkish membership of the EU anyway. Erdogan has openly toyed with this idea, but so far has not followed through on it for two reasons: alternative partners are either completely unstable (large swathes of the Middle East), or untrustworthy (Russia). Perhaps more importantly, the Turkish economy as it stands now is dependent on trade with the EU and on European investment and will be for the foreseeable future. Cutting ties with the EU would have unimaginable (but almost certainly extremely negative) consequences for the Turkish economy. Erdogan’s dream of having Turkey be one of the top ten global economies by 2023, the year the Turkish republic celebrates its centenary, would certainly go up in smoke.

This has resulted in a stalemate which has lasted years. Officially, negotiations between the EU and Turkey are still taking place, but de facto very little is happening, particularly since Erdogan began moving towards autocratic practices after 2013 and took no notice of European protests against press restrictions and human rights infringements. However, there may be an end in sight.

Customs Union

There has been speculation recently that Turkey is planning to reshape its relationship with the EU. Central to this alternative is the Customs Union, the set of agreements and rules between the EU and Turkey which has been in place since 1996 facilitating the trade of industrial products. Late last year, both parties agreed the Customs Union needed an update, although the Member States still have to approve the European Commission proposal. If that happens, Turkey and the EU will sit down to expand the Union’s scope to cover agricultural products and service provision. If successful, this will provide a new and firm foundation for the economic relationship between Turkey and the EU.

Nobody should be surprised if, having won his referendum, at some point this year Erdogan puts forward a proposal that kicks accession talks into the long grass and replaces them with something else: an expanded, renewed Customs Union. This would be to Turkey’s great advantage, guaranteeing economic links with the EU but putting an end to constant EU meddling in Turkey’s domestic politics. For years, Erdogan has been angry at criticism of his administration coming from Brussels, but knows that it is a logical consequence of Turkey’s desire to join the EU. If Turkey delays or gives up this ambition, what Turkey sees as unwanted interference should stop. It would be very much in Erdogan’s interests to bring about this change in perspective quickly; the conflict following the failed coup pushed the Turkish economy into a deep crisis. Foreign investment has dropped dramatically due to political instability and the dismantling of the rule of law. The value of Turkey’s currency, too, has fallen, which is a disaster for many Turkish companies who have taken out loans in dollars or euros. Revitalising economic links with the EU could provide a much-needed boost to the Turkish economy.

Populists

Within the EU, calling off or postponing accession talks would be met with a sigh of relief in many capitals. Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and The Hague would be willing to help Ankara, since Turkish membership has been controversial for many years and fuels populist fire. If the EU can also secure the assurance it needs on strategic collaboration with Turkey in both the short and long term, then this would be the type of win-win deal European politicians have only dreamed of until now.

Resetting relations on Turkey’s initiative would also make it easier to solve another thorny issue: removing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens travelling to the EU for short stays. One part of modernising the Customs Union could be a phased repeal of travel restrictions: for business people initially, then later for other specific groups and lastly for all Turkish citizens. This could also save the current refugee deal, which is currently under threat as the EU is refusing to waive visas for all Turks for as long as Turkey refuses to adapt its anti-terror legislation. Turkey is unwilling to countenance doing so at a time when the country is constantly the victim of suicide bombings by ISIS or the Kurdish PKK.

Changing Track

This kind of change would bring an ambiguous, hopeless situation to an end – one which is ever more difficult for those who support Turkish accession to defend. But focusing on Turkish economic interests and European strategic needs has one big drawback: if Europe stops pushing for development in Turkish democracy because membership of the block is no longer on the table, who can Turkish democrats look to for support in their fight against autocracy? European progressives will have to find an answer to this question soon, ideally before agreeing to the change of path that now seems inevitable.