EU-Turkey Relations

EU-Turkey relations and the EU parliament resolution to call for freezing Turkey’s accession process

The EU adopts a cautiously confrontational stance towards Turkey as the refugee crisis deal hangs in the balance while Europe’s far right is on the rise and Turkey is ever more looking elsewhere for friends.

Relations between Turkey and the European Union are at an all-time low, the lowest since accession negotiations began in 2005, according to Laura Batalla Adam, Secretary General of the European Parliament’s Friends of Turkey Group. Relations in their current state are currently best described as confrontational yet cautious, with strong implications for the EU-Turkey refugee crisis deal.

On 24 November, the EU parliament passed, with a clear majority, a non-binding resolution calling for the temporary freezing of Turkey’s EU accession process. The vote was partly in response to Turkey’s crackdown on suspected Gülenists, underway with intensity since July’s attempted coup, which has resulted in restrictions on media and civil society. Freezing talks has different legal implications to suspending, and reflects the EU’s cautiousness over confrontation with Turkey.

Of key importance in EU-Turkey relations is the Joint Action Plan, agreed upon in November last year to address the refugee crisis.  Under this agreement, Turkey would stem westward refugee and migrant flows. In exchange, Turkey would receive liberalised visa regulations for its citizens to the Schengen area, financial assistance and an acceleration of its EU accession process, the last of which the November 24 resolution called on to freeze. This situation, if it persists, risks damaging EU-Turkey relations. This will affect efforts to address the refugee crisis.

Changing dynamics within Europe also threaten this relationship. Germany’s far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is expected to enter the Bundestag in Germany’s 2017 national elections. The AfD rejects Turkish EU membership and is a stated precondition of the party’s participation in a coalition government. Even if the party does not join a coalition, any opposition role it plays would still pressure Merkel’s own conservative Christian Democratic Union by challenging it for the right-wing vote, possibly swinging Germany’s policy orientation away from positive ties with Turkey. Even without these developments, Germany’s attitude towards Turkish accession has long been sceptical.

Along with calling to freeze accession talks, the EU has also not delivered on visa liberalisation, a pillar of the deal. Turkey has threatened to stop stemming westward refugee and migrant flows in response to the EU not upholding its side of the deal. The AfD, like other far right parties in Europe, managed to increase its strength through concerns over the influx of people into Europe in 2015. Another wave of refugees into Europe would likely further increase the strength of far right parties, which are typically opposed to Turkey’s EU membership, further damaging EU-Turkey relations. Turkey holds great leverage over Europe since if it chooses to stop stemming westward refugee and migrant flows, European governments will pay a very high political price domestically. Ankara has shown before that it is willing to use refugee and migrant flows as leverage.

Europe’s most significant leverage over Turkey comes from the fact that Germany, France and Italy are among the country’s top five export destinations. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that Turkey no longer sees the EU as its only option among possible regional alignments. Erdogan has argued Turkey should not fixate over EU membership and has said it should consider the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation , a security and economic organisation including Russia, China and several Central Asian states. In any case, Turkey is now unlikely to pursue deeper EU integration.


30 November 2016

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