Ursula Von Der Leyen has the opportunity to reset badly strained relations between the EU and Turkey.At her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament last week, Ursula von der Leyen, outlined a set of political guidelines for the new Commission that she will soon be chairing. The presentation included a separate section entitled, “A stronger Europe in the world,” summarizing her aspirations for the European Union’s external action. Conspicuously absent from her brief was any reference to Turkey, an important neighbor and a candidate country.
This omission is testimony to the current dilemma facing EU policy makers. The relationship with Turkey has been allowed to degrade to such an extent that even top policy makers prefer to steer away from this difficult topic. As a result, the relations are now almost exclusively colored by mutual reactionism.
Despite being a candidate country, Turkey’s accession negotiations are blocked. Visa-liberalization talks are going nowhere. Pre-accession assistance is being significantly reduced. New funding for the next phase of the refugee deal is uncertain. And last week the EU decided on downscaling the political dialogue and suspending negotiations on an aviation agreement as a reaction to Turkey’s drilling in the contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
This last set of measures is a good illustration of Brussels’ strategic blindness. They do just enough to please domestic constituents, the member states, but not enough to compel the desired behavior change in Ankara. As a result, the measures will only help to enrich the list of mutual grievances with no impact on policy.
A concatenation of reactions doesn’t make policy. Von der Leyen’s priorities should include a frank stock-taking on the relations with Turkey. Her challenge will be to devise a smart engagement policy with a country unable to deliver on political reforms and improve the rule of law.
And yet Turkey remains firmly attached to its democratic traditions, as illustrated by the outcome of the local elections this year, where the political opposition made significant gains, taking over the local rule in nine of the 10 largest provinces.
The new Commission should start with the premise that Europe must rapidly demonstrate a sense of strategic initiative and responsibility to re-anchor Turkey at a time when Ankara is increasingly drifting away from its partners in the West. Turkey is now exposed not only to EU strictures but also to U.S. sanctions on account of its recent acquisition of an air and ballistic missile defense system from Russia.
This requires a creative re-engineering of the EU’s frame of relations with Turkey. The accession framework should remain in place to pre-empt another round of toxic and inconclusive deliberations. But it will need to be complemented by an additional framework of cooperation, with two pillars.
The first pillar involves the upgrading of the trading relationship. Turkey is the only economy of significance that has a customs union with the EU. This arrangement was negotiated back in 1995 and is in dire need of a modernization that would involve an enlargement of its scope to services, public procurement and possibly agriculture, as well as the revision of its dysfunctional system of dispute settlement. Even though the Commission forwarded a mandate for the start of these negotiations to the Council in December 2016, member states have so far refrained from giving it the green light, apparently for political considerations.
This attitude is ultimately self-defeating for the EU. In the absence of any tangible prospect for the resumption of the accession talks, the rejuvenation of the customs union is the sole politically realistic path of consequential engagement with Turkey. The customs union is also the only option to reconstruct a rules-based framework with Turkey, away from the trap of pure transactionalism.
The second pillar should target Turkish society with initiatives to ease mobility and access to Community programs. The EU should at least implement a program of visa waivers for groups of Turkish citizens like journalists, artists, students and business people. At present, Turkey is the EU’s only European neighbor facing serious visa obstacles. The EU should also re-invest the financial resources stripped from the pre-accession funding to Community programs like Erasmus to allow for a much larger pool of young Turks to study in Europe.
As the chair of the new Commission, Von der Leyen will have an opportunity to redress Europe’s relationship with Turkey. She can only succeed if European governments are ready to acknowledge that the EU’s current reactive policy on Turkey is a failure that, left unchanged, will lead to more acrimony and confrontation with Ankara.
This article has been published originally by Bloomberg.