Moment of rupture in Turkey-EU relations: from post-candidacy to open clash

CEFTUS online talk “Moment of rupture in Turkey-EU relations: from post-candidacy to open clash” with Prof. Cengiz Aktar and Yavuz Baydar

8 December 2020

18:00 GMT

Photos of the event

Turkey’s relations with the European Union (EU) was the focus of this talk with Prof. Cengiz Aktar, who is a distinguished scholar, a top expert on the European affairs, and a commentator for Ahval News Online. The talk was chaired and moderated by Mr Yavuz Baydar, Editor-in-Chief of Ahval News Online.

In his introduction, Mr Baydar provided a brief overview of the Turkey-EU relations and highlighted the main issues that have been causing tensions between Turkey and the EU – historically as well as in recent years.

Prof. Aktar began by describing the mood in Ankara immediately before the EU Summit and in light of potential sanctions that the EU can impose on Turkey. He referred to Ankara’s credibility problem and mentioned that many people didn’t believe what Ankara was saying. There is much talk, but not much deed and Ankara was not ready for a dialogue about the key issues.

Prof. Aktar highlighted that dissensions between EU member states are being disclosed more and that the problems were out in the open. A group of countries – led by Germany and including Italy, Spain, Hungary and Poland – have been blocking attempts to ‘punish Ankara’. Those who want sanctions imposed include France, Greece, Austria and the Netherlands. Prof. Aktar argued that ‘the Angela Merkel factor’ needs to be highlighted. Germany was holding the EU presidency and was very excited at the start. Germany had the ambition to mediate between Turkey and Greece, but on that aspect, it failed.

However, he argued that ‘the Merkel factor’ was deeper than that and emphasised that Mrs Merkel always has cherished relations with Ankara, and she visited Turkey 10 times during her tenure, which is something that was never seen before. In October 2015, Turkey was in a state of shock after a bloody and violent summer following the ruling party’s loss of its parliamentary majority in June, which it wanted to win back in November 2015. Mrs Merkel visited Turkey a few days before the election, and many people were shocked by how open she was in her support of the AKP. Since then, she has been continuously appeasing the Turkish government.

Prof. Aktar mentioned that on the day the EU decided to impose sanctions on Lukashenko and Belarus, sanctions against Turkey were also on the table. But unlike Belarus, the EU did not impose any sanctions on Turkey.

German press reports mention Germany being cornered by other EU member countries to impose sanctions. Greece has been pressuring Germany to stop selling weapons to Ankara, which is quite a new development. Prof. Aktar argued that it is becoming more difficult for Germany to appease the deeds and threats of Ankara. He emphasised that we will have to wait and see what sanctions will be applied, but in any case, they will likely hurt Turkey. He mentioned the Turkish economy was de-coupling from the European economy for some time now, but Europe was still the main investor in Turkey and its trading partner. However, in terms of governance, Turkey was somewhere else.

Prof. Aktar discussed the position of various EU institutions. He started with the European Parliament (EP). He referred to the recent resolution that the EP accepted regarding the ‘Varosha move’ by Ankara (President Erdoğan and Devlet Bahçeli’s visit to the closed-off ghost town in Cyprus on 15 November 2020). The visit took place on the 46th anniversary of the declaration of the Northern Cyprus Turkish Republic. The EP denounced this move with overwhelming support from across the chamber. Prof. Aktar referred to the first draft of the report that the EP discussed and said that it is a scathing report calling for ending the membership negotiations with Turkey.

Regarding the position of the Council of the European Union, Prof. Aktar mentioned that it was divided when it comes to sanctions against Turkey. Still, when it comes to relations with Turkey – the accession negotiations, modernising the customs union and the issue of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens – the Council is far away from meeting Turkey’s demands. He referred to Turkey being unusually high on the Council’s agenda, how Turkey became almost a permanent fixture on the agenda and always appeared in a negative context. He said: ‘In the capitals of member states and Brussels when people hear the name of Erdogan, they jump. Since formal relations between Turkey and the EU began in 1959, I don’t recall a period that is this negative. Turkey doesn’t appear on the EU Council’s work plan for the next 18 months; Turkey does not appear on its enlargement plans’.

He proceeded to discuss the position of the European Commission. He said that the Commission was ‘pushing papers’ for some time now and ‘being on Turkey desk is not very conducive for one’s career’. He said that nothing was happening in Ankara or Brussels.

Prof. Aktar discussed the topic of the Custom’s Union, which went hand in hand with membership. He argued that the current Custom’s Union between Turkey and the EU was kind of obsolete since it was agreed a long time ago, and it needed revision. At the moment, no modernisation of the Customs Union is planned. Prof. Aktar said the same story was true for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Many people hoped that they would offer visa-free travel as a carrot alongside the sticks, but Ankara rejected the sticks, and at the moment no one mentions visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.

Prof. Aktar listed five key points that those who want to appease Turkey or take actions against Turkey in the EU are considering openly or covertly:

  1. The NATO membership – antagonising Turkey through sanctions could push it towards Mr Putin’s lap, which will be a disaster for Europe.
  2. Trade – 23,000 EU companies operate in Turkey. The majority are German, followed by Dutch and Italian companies. No one wants to risk a reaction from a nervous Mr Erdoğan against these companies. Armed trade is also another area that the EU was keen to continue.
  3. The refugee policy: the agreement between Ankara and EU since March 2016 is something the EU would like to keep despite the deteriorations of overall relations with Turkey.
  4. The unease felt about Turkish origin population living in member countries and the desire not to provoke them.
  5. The fear that Turkey can implode and become another Syria. Turkey’s 700 billion US$ economy can’t function with Qatari money; it needs real capital investment to pull through the current crisis. There is the issue of Turkey’s actions abroad, in Libya and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The meeting continued with questions from Mr Baydar and the audience.

Speakers’ biographies:

Cengiz Aktar is a professor of political science presently teaching at the University of  Athens  EKPA.  He is a former director at the United  Nations specializing in asylum policies.  

He is known to be one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the  EU.  He was the Chair of  European  Studies at  Bahçeşehir  University-Istanbul. In 1999, he initiated a civil initiative for Istanbul’s candidacy for the title of  European Capital of  Culture.  Istanbul successfully held the title in 2010.  

He also headed the initiative called “European Movement 2002” which aimed at putting pressure on the lawmaker to speed up political reforms necessary to begin the negotiation phase with the EU.  

In December 2008, he developed the idea of an online apology campaign addressed to Armenians and supported by a number of  Turkish intellectuals as well as over 32.000 citizens of Turkey.   

In addition to EU integration policies, his research focuses on politics of memory regarding ethnic and religious minorities, on the history of political centralism and on international refugee law.   

His latest book “​Le Malaise Turc” (The Turkish Malaise) was published in November in France. 

Yavuz Baydar ​is the Editor-in-Chief of ​Ahval,​ a trilingual, independent online news and podcast site on Turkey.

His opinion articles have appeared in the  Guardian,  Süddeutsche  Zeitung, New York Times, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, Yomiuri Shimbun, the Arab Weekly, and Index on Censorship.

Baydar was among the co-founders, in 2013, of the independent media platform ​P24 to monitor the media sector and the state of journalism in his home country.

In  2014,  as a  Shorenstein  Fellow at  Harvard  Kennedy  School of  Government, he completed an extensive research paper on self-censorship, state oppression and threats over journalism in Turkey – in the wake of  Gezi  Park protests. The extended version of the paper was published in book form in German and Turkish, under the title “Newsroom as an Open-Air Prison:  Corruption and Self-Censorship in  Turkish Journalism”.​

Baydar  is  the  author  of  the  book, ​“Die Hoffnung Stirbt am Bosporus –  Wie die Türkei Freiheit und Demokratie Verspielt” (“The Hope dies at Bosporus: How Turkey Squandered Freedom and Democracy”). He was given in 2018 the prestigious ‘​Journalistenpreis’ by the (Munich-based) SüdostEurope Gesellschaft in Germany; and, t​he Special Award of the European Press Prize (​EPP), for ‘​excellence in journalism’,​ in 2014.

Turkey’s first news ombudsman,  beginning at  Milliyet daily in  1999,  Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. ​He served as president of the  U.S.  based  International  Organization of  News Ombudsmen ​(ONO) in 2003.

He studied Informatics, Cybernetics and Journalism at the University of Stockholm. He worked as a reporter and editor with Cumhuriyet daily, Radio Sweden, BBC Turkish, and Yeni Yüzyıl daily throughout the 1980 and 1990s.