MEPs advocate suspending EU-Turkey accession talks

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani urged Turkey to respect fundamental rights. [European Parliament]

Europe is not closing the door to Turkey, but recent developments are prompting it to look for alternatives to Turkey’s accession to the EU, said MEPs in a debate with Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn yesterday (26 April).

Hahn recently urged EU governments to consider changing its relationship with Turkey after a referendum that handed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping powers.

EU foreign ministers are meeting in Malta on Friday (28 April) to consider a new format for relations with Turkey, one that could ease mutual frustrations and reinforce cooperation.

Commission urges ‘different type of relations’ with Turkey

The European Union executive urged EU governments yesterday (24 April) to consider changing its relationship with Turkey after a referendum that handed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping powers put Ankara’s stalled membership talks deeper into cold storage.

Opening the debate, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani urged Turkey to respect fundamental rights, which are the basis of Europe. He stressed that “Europe is not an Islamophobic continent and is not closing the door on the Turkish people.”

“It’s time to reassess our relationship to Turkey. Full membership is not realistic. We need to put an end to that hypocrisy,” said German lawmaker Manfred Weber (CSU), head of the biggest faction in the EU legislature, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

Many MEPs voiced concern at the way Turkey’s referendum, which backed expanding presidential powers, was conducted, calling it unfair. They said it is time to reassess EU – Turkey relations and start a new chapter.

Some MEPs could not see Turkey ever becoming a full EU member, while others still hoped that it would be enough to suspend the negotiations, leaving the possibility for Turkey to change its current course.

Kati Piri, a Dutch PvdA lawmaker who oversees the Turkey portfolio, criticised the plan to give Erdoğan more powers. Critics say it will undermine democracy and stifle free speech in Turkey.

“As Turkey with such a constitution cannot become a member of the EU, it doesn’t make sense to continue the discussion on integration. The EU should officially suspend the accession talks if the constitutional changes are implemented unchanged,” the Socialists &  Democrats-affiliated MEP said.

Others in the European Parliament echoed her view, saying the EU needed to forge a different relationship with Turkey on trade, security and migration.

“It may be a more difficult relationship but it will be a more honest relationship. More cautious. More critical. Focused more on cooperation and no longer on the distant goal of EU membership,” said Syed Kamall, a British Conservative (ECR).

Piri said any suspension should only come if and when the “authoritarian constitution” is enacted, which would happen after Turkey holds its next election, now due in late 2019.

Officials in Brussels have speculated that Erdogan could bring them forward to swiftly assume the increased powers, though he has said that is not on the agenda now.

Most EU lawmakers said Turkey’s EU bid should only be suspended, not completely aborted.

“I don’t want to take that perspective away from the Turkish population,” Piri said.

“Turkey should remain a candidate country but we’re negotiating with the government. It’s become clear over the last two years that this government doesn’t want to meet criteria.”

Piri added that she expected the EU foreign ministers on Friday to ask the European Commission for a formal assessment of where Turkey stands on fulfilling the criteria. Based on that, EU leaders could make further decisions when they meet in June.

One tangible effect of suspending the process would be freezing the annual payments of some €600 million of EU pre-accession funds to Turkey.

The lawmakers said Brussels could instead open talks on a looser kind of relationship known as an “association agreement”, or strengthen the customs union Turkey already has with the EU.

An expanded customs union, more trade, student exchanges, and cooperation on security and migration, were some of the ideas presented by MEPs as a new way forward. Some also advocated maintaining support for democratic forces in Turkey, as millions of Turks do want to be a part of EU.

The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee is set to start debating the traditional annual resolution on Turkey’s progress on 2 May. The draft resolution for 2016, prepared by Piri, also calls on the EU “to suspend the accession talks with Turkey if the constitutional package is implemented unchanged”.

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