Turkey has a long road ahead with renewed EU bid

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On July 20, European Union foreign ministers met to discuss Ankara's renewed accession demands and agreed to re-engage with Turkey. In the European Commission report on enlargement for 2022, they noted the EU's concerns over the country's “continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary.” However, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has reportedly shifted perceptions within the EU toward its neighboring countries, including Turkey.

Turkey's aspirations to join the EU started 24 years ago — or 36 when Turkey applied for association with the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU, in 1987. It renewed these aspirations ahead of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, earlier this month. As such, as one senior EU official told the Financial Times, “We’re not swallowing the membership demand line whole. But there’s definitely a willingness from many of us to see where we can do more together.”

How it started

Turkey was granted candidate status in 1999, and accession negotiations opened in 2005 under the condition that Turkey must meet a series of policy fields (called chapters) within the enlargement process and abide by a set of principles known as the Copenhagen political criteria.

Since then, Turkey's EU bid grew weaker each year under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which took power in 2002. Over the years, internal political riffs and crackdowns on freedoms and rights have reduced the chances of the country joining the European body. That and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's inflammatory rhetoric, calling Europe “sick” and “collapsing,” while threatening to roll back some of the reforms like reinstating the death penalty, pushed the country's European aspirations even further away. Other contested issues include Turkey's hostile relations with Greece and Cyprus, both EU member states.

By 2018, Turkey's accession negotiations came to a standstill.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland announced their decision to join NATO. However, the decision, which must be approved unilaterally by all 30 member states, was vetoed by Turkey, also a NATO member. Ankara said last year that unless both countries met its demands, it wouldn't approve the bid, “citing their history of hosting members of Kurdish militant groups and Sweden’s suspension of arms sales to Turkey since 2019 over Ankara’s military operation in Syria” according to the Guardian. In addition to Turkey, Hungary also vetoed the decision for the two countries to join the alliance. In February 2023, Turkey withdrew from attending a meeting in Brussels between Sweden, Finland, and Turkey, which was meant to hash out the diplomatic standoff over Finland and Sweden's bid to join NATO.

Finland joined the alliance in April 2023.

So it was rather surprising to hear Erdoğan renew the country's accession aspirations ahead of the NATO summit. Shortly before leaving for the summit, he spoke to the local media, where he was quoted as saying, “First, open the way for Turkey’s membership in the European Union, and then we will open it for Sweden, just as we had opened it for Finland.”

Turkey was at odds with Sweden joining NATO following a Quran-burning incident earlier this year. But Erdoğan's gripe with Sweden goes beyond what the leader described as an “insult to the sacred values of Muslims.”
Whatever the explanation is, soon there will be answers, wrote Turkey experts:

Official Ankara has other asks from Sweden too, including banning pro-Kurdish demonstrations in Sweden and extraditing various individuals Turkey labels as terrorists, wrote journalist Amberin Zaman.

How it is going

During the meeting on July 20, EU foreign ministers convened to discuss Turkey's demands, such as “greater access to the EU customs union, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, and an extension of aid to Ankara linked to migration management.”

In 2016, Ankara and Brussels signed a refugee deal that had Turkey halt the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe in return for visa concessions and EUR 6 billion in aid for more than 3.5 million Syrians arriving in Turkey. In July 2020, following threats leveled against the EU that Turkey would no longer block migrants’ passage to Europe, the European Parliament approved an additional EUR 500 million (USD 562 million). In 2021, the EU allocated EUR 3 billion to refugees for 2021–2023. Two EU officials who spoke to the Financial Times said additional funds had been budgeted to extend aid to Turkey.

In addition to Syrian refugees, Turkey has also been on the receiving end of thousands of Afghan migrants who fled the country following the withdrawal of American troops in August 2021. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that some 4 million refugees, mostly Syrians, live in Turkey. Afghans make up the second largest group. The growing number of refugees has sparked anti-immigrant violence in Turkey.

Although additional funds were allocated to Turkey, no progress was made on Turkey's EU accession negotiations or visa concessions. Scores of Turkish citizens have shared their stories of visa denials in recent years, which have extended to journalists and academics. In July 2023, EFJ issued a statement calling on the EU member states to stop the “de facto visa embargo imposed on journalists.”

According to data on Schengen Visa Info, out of 768,408 applications made to member states in 2o22, 645,842 applications were rejected in 2021 — about 84 percent.

Pundits say there is a long road ahead if Turkey genuinely wants to join the EU. Reforming the rule of law, adhering to democratic principles, and ensuring equal rights are just some of the pressing requirements. None of these are a problem, according to President Erdoğan, who told reporters on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius that Turkey had “no shortcomings when it comes to democracy, rights, and freedoms.”

As such, it does not look like Turkey will start implementing outstanding decisions and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

One high-profile example of an outstanding judiciary case is that of Osman Kavala, Turkey's renowned philanthropist, who was sentenced to life in prison in April 2022 after his arrest in 2017 in a maximum-security prison. Kavala, a successful Turkish businessman, supported numerous civil society initiatives in Turkey over the years, including the Open Society Foundation Turkey. He was arrested on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and “attempting to overthrow the government” over his alleged financing of the Gezi Protests in 2013. In February 2020, Kavala was acquitted; however, hours later, he was accused of involvement in the 2016 coup attempt. Although he was cleared one month after this accusation, Kavala was kept in remand detention on the charge of “political or military espionage.” Then in January 2021, his acquittal in the Gezi Park trial was reversed, and during the trial held in February 2021, the court ruled to combine charges leveled against Kavala in the Gezi Park trial with the 2016 coup, ruling to continue his detention. Kavala's lawyers have said the indictment is a presumptive fiction lacking any evidence. International human rights organizations and civil society groups in Turkey have said the arrest of Kavala is politically motivated.

The sentiments of required internal changes were also echoed in Brussels. Nacho Sanchez Amor, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, said on July 18 no geopolitical bargaining was on the table. “When Turkish authorities show real interest in stopping the continuous backsliding in fundamental freedoms and rule of law,” then accession talks can return, noted the rapporteur. Other European officials noted Sweden's membership to NATO and Turkey's EU bid were independent of each other. Dana Spinant, the deputy chief spokesperson of the European Commission, said, “The European Union has a very structured process of enlargement, with a very, very clear set of steps that need to be taken by all candidate countries and even by those that wish to become candidate countries. You cannot link the two processes.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also said the two were unrelated.

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