Recent political developments in Turkey and its surrounding region pose challenges for the kind of cooperation programs that European aid donors operate inside Turkey. This report examines how European donors are reacting to the evolving political and security context in and around Turkey and provides thoughts on how they should reorientate their aid programs.

Of course, much has been written on the recent macro-level shifts in EU-Turkey relations. Many articles and reports have examined the general impact of increased regional refugee and migration flows in 2015 and 2016 on EU-Turkey relations. It is well established that since the dramatic aborted coup attempt of July 2016, EU-Turkey relations have faced additional challenges. In high-level political debates, most focus has been on the question of whether the EU is likely to slow or interrupt accession talks with Turkey. And, the general situation regarding the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Kurdish issues, and the Syrian conflict have also been high on the diplomatic agenda and exhaustively covered in the press and think tank analysis.

This report is not about these big, overarching political strands of EU-Turkey relations, and it does not attempt a general overview of the latter. Rather, we hone in very selectively on a number of aspects of EU-Turkey relations somewhat less covered in recent work. These are aspects related to European financial assistance and initiatives in Turkey. We look at four areas of such assistance: security; institution-building; civil society support; and refugee and migration management.

Moving down from the high-level political issues currently affecting EU-Turkey relations, we examine the less commented matter of how EU assistance programs on the ground in Turkey are adjusting to the new circumstances. And, in line with broader developments in European foreign policy dynamics, we examine not only the initiatives run by the EU as such but also by some of the main member states—as these are today lead actors in many aspects of security and foreign policy.

We expressly look behind the high-politics agenda to report on how concrete EU cooperation programs are evolving. We assess how these programs are caught up in the altered strategic relationship between Turkey and the EU—and whether the EU and member states have begun to shift their priorities on the ground within Turkey. A key concern is to assess how far such positive cooperation is able to offset some of the high-politics tensions that have appeared in EU-Turkey relations.

This issue matters because EU aid continues to run at a relatively high level and in many areas represents the most tangible leading edge of European policy. The European Commission’s Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA) allocates Turkey a total of 4.45 billion euros for 2014-2020, averaging around 650 million euros a year. Democracy, governance, rule of law, and fundamental rights represents the largest sector at 1.58 billion euros for the period. The rest is spread between environment and climate action (644 million), transport (442 million), competitiveness and innovation (344 million), agriculture 922 million), and education, social policies, and employment (435 million).1 The IPA is now set for a midterm review, presenting an opportunity for fine-tuning priorities and aid delivery mechanisms. Other sources of European aid have also made additional funds available for Turkey.

In terms of how these high levels of aid are actually being spent, we observe the following considerations:

  • a growing focus on security cooperation, but masking differences between the EU and Turkey over the best way to enhance resilience against instability and terrorism;
  • a more selective and limited EU institutionbuilding agenda in Turkey;
  • the emergence of new flexible and apolitical approaches to civil society support; and
  • advances in aid targeted at migration management, but with longer-term capacity-building in this area still required.

We conclude by suggesting how more effective EU aid initiatives might grow out of these incipient trends—both harnessing their potential and correcting current shortcomings. While aid cooperation cannot entirely offset high-level diplomatic challenges, the EU and Turkey need to persevere in improving the four areas of aid initiatives identified in this report and in finding a judicious mix between political and practical approaches on the ground. Diplomats and analysts have been arguing for several years now that the EU and Turkey need to develop concrete areas of cooperation that have not been framed in terms of a pre-accession relationship; this report offers ideas for how such an injunction could and should be taken forward.

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This publication was originally published by the Istanbul Policy Center.