The winners of Britain’s June 23 referendum used Turkey as a bogeyman to boost their case to leave the European Union. To what extent the “Turkey fear” swayed their victory remains unclear, but one thing is for sure: The outcome has pushed Turkey farther away from the European Union.
A month ahead of the vote, the “leave” block made Turkey a central topic in its campaign, linking it deliberately to the refugee crisis that threatens European institutions and democracy. Stoking popular fears, the Brexiteers claimed, “Since the birthrate in Turkey is so high, we can expect to see an additional million people added to the UK population from Turkey alone within eight years.” They went as far as to suggest that “because of the EU’s free movement laws, the government will not be able to exclude Turkish criminals from entering the UK.” To soothe his compatriots, Prime Minister David Cameron felt compelled to declare that “at the current rate of progress [Turkey] will probably get round to joining in about the year 3000.”
Now, a week after the Brexit vote, Turkey is opening a new chapter in its EU accession talks — Chapter 33, titled “Financial and Budgetary Provisions.” The inauguration, scheduled for June 30, was agreed as part of the refugee deal package that Turkey and the EU sealed March 18. So, does this debunk Cameron’s assertion that Turkey is a thousand years away from EU membership? Are the conservative and nationalist Brexiteers right after all? Is Turkey really on the way to membership?
The answer is no. The opening of Chapter 33 has no added value in terms of energizing Turkey’s accession process, for it covers post-membership arrangements on contributions that countries make to the EU budget once they have joined in. In other words, it has no transformative impact that brings the candidate country closer to membership like other chapters that go by the titles “Agriculture and Rural Development,” “Judiciary and Fundamental Rights,” “Justice, Freedom and Security” or “Environment.”
Cameron’s millennial prognosis for Turkey may have been a hyperbole, but the snail-paced progress — or rather the lack of progress — in Turkey’s accession talks is a fact. Since the negotiations started in October 2005, Turkey has managed to open talks only in 15 out of the 33 policy areas it must complete, including only three in the past six years. Only one of those chapters has been concluded and closed.
Lying at the heart of the deadlock is the Cyprus conflict. Back in December 2006, EU leaders froze eight chapters for Turkey and decided it can open talks in other policy areas but cannot formally complete them as long as a major dispute over Cyprus remained unsolved. The sanctions came in response to Ankara's failure to open its seaports and airports to the use of Cypriot vessels, a commitment it had made under a customs union accord with the EU. The row stems from Ankara's refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus, represented by the Greek Cypriot government in the south of the island, which enjoys international recognition. In 2004, the EU admitted Cyprus as a divided island. In a unilateral move, Cyprus — or the “Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus” as Ankara calls it — has blocked another six negotiating chapters for Turkey.
From a technical point of view, one could conclude the Cyprus problem is the obstacle snagging Turkey’s accession talks. Hence, resolving the problem would be expected to unclog and revitalize the process, but the matter is not that simple.
In the decade after the de facto suspension of Turkey’s accession process, both Turkey and the EU have changed a lot, gravitating away from each other. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has built an authoritarian, Islamist regime that shows little respect for human rights, has largely crushed media freedoms and abolished checks and balances, dragging Turkey away from the rule of law, democracy and secularism.
Erdogan has increasingly demonstrated he has little intention to make Turkey an EU member — not only with his actions, but also with open outbursts against the EU. Take for instance his response last week to European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who said Erdogan’s own policies stood in the way of the EU’s planned visa waiver for Turkey. Speaking on the day the “leave” camp triumphed in Britain, Erdogan said Turkey could hold a similar referendum to ask its people whether the accession talks should continue or not. Europe does not want Turkey in because “the majority of its population is Muslim,” he said.
Yet, the Brexit vote is bound to hurt Turkey-EU relations, regardless of how much the Erdogan regime cares for them. First, Turkey is losing Britain as its only powerful ally in the EU. Past experience shows that a candidate country’s accession depends on this prerequisite: not only none of the EU heavyweights should oppose its bid, but at least one of them should be providing strong political support. For Turkey, Britain was the sole supportive heavyweight. It is now left alone with France and Germany, which are both averse to its membership.
Second, the EU has displayed a tendency for introversion in times of crisis, buckling under the weight of its problems. Clearly, this is a huge disadvantage for Turkey, which is already a tough and controversial candidate. France’s rejection of the EU Constitution in 2005 had created a similar atmosphere, but the crisis is much deeper this time.
Europe’s refugee crisis — obviously a major factor in the Brexit phenomenon — is likely to trigger other Brexit-like secessionist movements in Europe’s far-right and nationalist quarters. Turkey, in this context, is in a very hapless position, being the embodiment of Europe’s three biggest fears: radical Islam, immigration and the challenges brought about by enlargement. With the threats of radicalism and immigration on the rise, the EU’s popular masses and political elites are bound to grow even more averse to Turkey.
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