The EU and Turkey: Tactical moves, or a golden opportunity?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

AKP-issued Turkish election tee shirts. Brussels, December 2015. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

Confronted by so many internal headaches, the European Union has ruled out enlargement until the end of the decade. The recent decision to revive stalled membership negotiations with Turkey is therefore curious, write Mehmet Ö?ütçü and Stephen Jones.

Mehmet Ö?ütçü is chairman of the Global Resources Partnership and Stephen Jones is a partner of energy advocacy and advisory service Global Resources Communications.

Was it simply a blandishment in exchange for Turkey’s cooperation in stemming migrant flows? Or was it a recognition of the country’s gradual but irresistible rise as an economic giant and a regional superpower, at a time when the EU’s influence and prosperity has declined?

Turkey is now a force to be reckoned with, and perhaps the EU’s move on accession talks reflects the view that Turkey’s full and equal participation in the EU could deliver transformational changes for the Union in the world, quite unlike other accessions in recent history.

Certainly, the EU-Turkey relationship is now skewed markedly in Ankara’s favour. Right now, the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. This new year, therefore, will be a critical juncture in this sometimes fraught association.

A resurgent Turkey, whose ruling party regained a parliamentary majority in November’s election, is looking like an ever more attractive partner for the EU. It’s up to Turkey to wring the most out of this advantage.

Rapprochement will not lead to accession – for now. Even if the European Commission was to reverse its freeze on enlargement, negotiations would take years. Turkey’s strategic goal of achieving membership by 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, appears optimistic.

Indeed, both sides would do well to play down the prospects of Turkey’s accession, instead focusing on solid achievements and deeper integration, in particular in the energy sector. The recent invitation to Turkey to join the EU’s Energy Union is therefore welcome for both sides.

Turkey has insignificant hydrocarbon resources of its own but it aspires to be a an energy hub through which oil and gas from markets further east and south are channelled into the EU. The depressed price of oil is keeping a lid the region’s potential for now, but new gas fields off Cyprus and Israel will significantly boost the EU’s energy security.

Until recently, Turkey’s aspiration to become an energy hub was built on the presumption of copious quantities of Russian gas flowing through the Turkish Stream pipeline. Recent events appear to have strangled Turkish Stream at birth. But this apparent upset could turn out to be an opportunity for Turkey.

Turkish Stream was only ever a Russian plan, announced by President Putin in a fit of pique, because bilateral accords he negotiated with South Stream transit countries were contrary to EU law. Turkey has not invested a great deal financially, or politically, in the deal.

The rapid deterioration in Turkey-Russia relations is a useful wake-up call for Ankara, which, like the EU, is more dependent than it would like to be on Gazprom. Turkey will continue to diversify its energy mix and sources, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia now among Turkey’s key energy partners.

In addition to energy, Turkey’s multifaceted geostrategic posture is also attractive to the EU, which has proven itself to be an inadequate manager of the crises on its doorstep. EU countries in the East, notably Poland and the Baltic States, are once again vulnerable to Russia. The concern they feel is shared by Turkey, itself eyeing Russia’s assertiveness in the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and Syria, with unease.

Although Turkey’s simmering conflict with the Kurds has recently erupted once more, the country remains a relatively stable bulwark with a highly advanced military and a ‘cordon sanitaire’ for the conflicts and tensions in Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey is also a vital bridge for Europe to the Islamic world at a time when global tensions are high. It is essential that Turkey continues to build on its soft-power initiatives to complement its diplomacy – one of the most notable being the Europalia arts festival in Brussels, which ends this month.

Turkey and Europe stand at a crossroads in their relationship. Many times before they have diverged, and then come together. The challenge now is to maintain this new momentum.

In particular, both sides need to be honest about what they want and need, and to avoid double standards. In the past, Turkey has been let down by conflicting messages coming from the EU about whether it belongs in the EU, or whether it is better to manage their partnership as a marriage of convenience. It would be tragic, and an error of monumental proportions, for Turkey to progress towards membership only to find one country’s veto scuppers decades of work.

Similarly, Turkey needs to show leadership and commitment towards a more mature democracy, the defence of fundamental freedoms and seek a permanent resolution in Cyprus, a perennial fracture in ties that could be mended in March’s expected referendum on reunification.

Defining the future parameters of the relationship on a realistic, mutually beneficial basis is therefore a vital step if progress is to be made. Is membership definitely on the table? Does Turkey want it?

What is clear is that the EU is changing, and that it will inevitably become a Union of variable geometry, in which a core of states are much more integrated politically and economically with each other, and an outer periphery is focused mostly on the single market.

Such an arrangement could appeal to both Turkey and the EU states least supportive of its membership. It could also appeal to the UK, a fervent supporter of Turkish membership aspirations but now reaching a critical point in its turbulent relationship with the EU.

With Washington also supportive of stronger EU-Turkey ties, China courting Ankara through its ambitious One Belt, One Road corridor and the normalisation of diplomacy with Russia still far off, Turkey has the chance to become the EU’s foremost eastern partner. Shaping that partnership is now Turkey’s prerogative – a heavy responsibility but also a golden opportunity. 

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