Suspending European Union membership negotiations would be the wrong signal for Europe to send Turkey. The move, set to be debated in the European Parliament, would eliminate what’s left of the EU’s leverage over Ankara and further erode the credibility of Turkish liberals, whose European-friendly narrative has already made them an endangered species.
The EU’s lawmakers are, of course, forced to react to the democratic backsliding of a candidate country. But they should be considering a variety of options instead of launching an attack on the core of the EU-Turkey relationship. The EU is now paying the price of the strategic blindness that has already led to a hollowing of its relationship with Turkey.
Despite starting membership talks in 2005, the EU has not officially tackled the issue of fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey. The relevant chapter in accession negotiations remains blocked due to a dispute over Cyprus. The same is true for the chapter on the rule of law. In other words, even when Turkey was going in the right direction, the EU could not address these critical issues with Turkish policymakers. There is a direct line between this gross failure of engagement and the EU’s current situation, in which its only available counter measure is the nuclear option of ending accession talks altogether.
Given the current political constellation in Turkey and in Europe, where many countries face populist and anti-Islam movements, it may not be a good idea to continue with the pretense of Turkish accession. But breaking this bond without first devising an alternative is even worse.
Breaking off accession talks will endanger the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey. It would also stand in the way of a settlement in Cyprus, where negotiations broke down again this week. The EU and Turkey urgently need to envision joint solutions to evolving political and security challenges that will no doubt be accelerated by a Trump presidency. By breaking diplomatic bonds with Turkey, Europe would seriously undermine its own political agenda.
The EU-Turkey relationship is at a crossroads. But this moment of truth should not necessarily mean that the past should be disregarded. Europe should use this opportunity to create a new framework within which discussions about the relationship can be held.
That Turkey’s accession is not a realistic goal for the foreseeable future should be the starting point of this new discussion; but that acknowledgement should not be a punishment but an opportunity to redefine the relationship according to mutual interests: the refugee crisis, economic integration, counterterrorism and energy, to name a few.
The process of reshaping Turkey’s relationship to Europe — outside the auspices of EU accession talks — should involve non-governmental and non-political actors and should be given a more lenient time-frame to ensure the talks are not poisoned by the electoral cycles in many key European countries. Ideally, such an inclusive Turkey-EU debate would reach a set of principles that would underpin the nature of the future relationship, and governments would then be tasked with formalizing those expectations.
Turkey should not be forced out of its current relationship with Europe. To borrow Brexit terminology, Turkey needs a “soft exit” that leaves the door open for an amicable relationship. Anything else would be a mistake.