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EU to cut aid to Turkey as accession talks trail off

The European Council has decided to cut its pre-accession funds for Turkey in yet another bad sign for the country's EU membership process.

The European Council, the EU organ comprised of heads of member states who give strategic direction to the European integration project, recently signaled that it will cut its pre-accession funds for Turkey.

In a written statement on Oct. 20, European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU was reflecting “on whether to cut and re-orient pre-accession funds” to Ankara. The Polish statesman pointed out that the European club wanted “to keep the door open to Ankara, but the current reality … is making this difficult,” referring to the deterioration of the rule of law and democratic standards in Turkey. Tusk also advised Ankara “to respect all Member States in its relations with the EU, including when it comes to the implementation of the existing Customs Union agreement,” in reference to Turkey’s refusal to extend its 1995 customs union with the EU to the Greek Cypriot-ruled Republic of Cyprus.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the most powerful member of the EU, clarified that the council had asked the European Commission, the EU’s civil service arm, “to reduce [Turkey’s] pre-accession aid in a responsible way.” The figure in question is 4.5 billion euros (about $5.28 billion) covering the period of 2014-2020.

Like Tusk, Merkel maintained a civil tone and expressed concern that Turkey was “moving away step by step from something we consider as preconditions for accession,” but added that the EU would continue to pay Turkey to look after Syrian refugees. The German chancellor also hinted that some EU member states would like to “break [accession] negotiations immediately” and that there was “general skepticism” toward Turkish membership in the EU. The influential German leader offered to “not burn bridges” with Ankara and asked the two sides to “re-engage” and perhaps discuss a “special partnership” other than full Turkish membership.

Turkey first signed an association agreement with the European club in 1963 and became a candidate for full membership in 1999. To join, Turkey must successfully adopt EU law under 35 chapters in such areas as free movement of labor, fisheries, the environment and public procurement. Accession negotiations between the EU and Ankara started in 2005 after Turkey met the so-called Copenhagen Criteria on political freedoms, the rule of law, a functioning market economy and institutional capacity to meet the obligations of EU membership. Yet less than half of the chapters have been opened and only one concluded provisionally. Because of disputes such as Cyprus and Turkey’s domestic politics, negotiations have been at a standstill since 2015.

The European Council’s announcement comes in the wake of a July 6 vote at the European Parliament to halt accession negotiations with Turkey. More recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the members of his Justice and Development Party on Oct. 13 and said Turkey has “no need” for the EU or the United States.

So is this the end of the road for Turkey and the European Union? Not quite.

According to Cigdem Ustun, an associate professor of EU studies in Izmir, “Ending accession negotiations would not be an easy decision for the EU” because it would “mean [the EU] losing any leverage, if it has any left, with Turkey.” Ustun told Al-Monitor in an email interview, “Rather than ending the talks, we are hearing that cutting some of the pre-accession aid or channeling more money toward [nongovernmental organizations] working on human rights and rule of law are being discussed. It makes me believe that the EU wants to continue to have a positive impact on Turkey.”

Ustun also pointed out that despite their harsh tone, Turkish leaders — including Erdogan — remain committed to full membership, even though both sides are aware that such a prospect is less likely than ever. “We may expect some harsh speeches from President Erdogan and the government, but I would not personally expect this decision to end the relations with the EU,” Ustun added.

But the EU signaling its intention to cut pre-accession funds is hardly good news for Turkey, whose relations with its Western allies have been fraying since last year’s coup attempt.

Evangelos Areteos, a Brussels-based correspondent for the Cypriot daily Politis and analyst on EU and Turkey affairs for the Diplomatic Academy at the University of Nicosia, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview that the European Council decision was a “delicate exercise to keep the balance.” He pointed out that some countries, such as Austria and Denmark, are vehemently opposed to Turkish membership and would like to see an immediate end to accession talks. Germany and the Netherlands want to give a straight message to the Turkish side while avoiding “a collision with Turkey.” More moderate members such as France, Italy and Greece would like to see the talks with Ankara continue. More than anything, the European Council’s Oct. 20 directive was a balancing act and will not be acted on until June 2018.

But Areteos does not think there is much to celebrate here for Turkey. He said, “Accession is dead. But nobody wants to pull the plug. … There is no significant link to the Copenhagen Criteria anymore despite the fact that the EU lousily tries to save appearances.”

Areteos continued, "Turkey is far off and it cannot come back as a real candidate for full membership for the foreseeable future,” adding, “The problem is not only Turkey; far from that. The authoritarian deviations of Ankara and its confrontation with some member states, mainly Germany, are giving the perfect excuse to many European countries who do not want Turkey to become a member of the EU.” Silver bullets to revive the relations by expanding the EU-Turkey customs union seem out of question.

Turkey and the EU are not quite at the end of the road yet. But unless something changes, they just might get there soon.

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