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Does the EU need Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU

Turkey's EU Minister Omer Celik with Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on September 2 2016 [File photo]
Turkey's EU Minister Omer Celik with Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on September 2 2016 [File photo]

The founders of modern Turkey decided that the West was to be the direction of the nascent state and they enacted laws to westernise both state and society. What seems like a natural extension of this process was the initial request for Turkey to be part of Europe in July 1959, when Ankara submitted a request to join the European Economic Community (known colloquially as the Common Market). The process remains incomplete, with many ups and downs since then.

Turkey’s relations with what is now the European Union are facing a crisis due to Europe’s bias towards organisations targeting Turkey and its stability, such as the terrorist PKK and the Parallel State Organisation (PDY). Some European capitals harbour the leaders and members of these organisations and allow them to carry out activities against Turkey. There have also been statements by European leaders expressing their disappointment at the failure of July’s coup attempt in Turkey and outrage at the arrest of mayors and MPs belonging to the Peoples’ Democratic Party on the grounds of their relations with the PKK and their involvement in supporting its terrorist acts.

Turkey has benefitted from its efforts to join the EU and has made great strides in achieving democratic reforms and meeting the standards required for membership. In addition, its economic position is today better than many EU member states. Despite this, the EU continues to stall, making Turkey wait outside the door of the European club.

The EU has standards and criteria for accession, but these are not applied to all countries with the same degree of rigour. Instead, each country wanting to join the EU is dealt with according to its size and population, as well as, it seems, the majority religion therein, especially in light of the discussion regarding European identity. Is it a specifically Christian union? If so, Turkey’s accession to the EU will be even more complicated because it would upset religious sensitivities and balance.

The policy employed by the EU regarding Turkey’s membership has provoked questions by ordinary Turks about how worthwhile the whole thing is; they are reconsidering the point of joining. Moreover, European officials make offensive statements from time to time, criticising the Turkish government and threatening to end any possibility of accession to the EU.

The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is one of the most prominent of those officials who make such comments. Most recently, Schultz said that it is the EU’s duty to think of economic measures to take against Turkey in the event that the government continues to detain opposition MPs and journalists. He also reiterated the EU’s condemnation of Turkey’s reinstating of the death penalty. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to this threat with a clear challenge and characteristic defiance: “What are you? Since when do you have the authority to decide for Turkey? How can you, who have not taken Turkey into the EU for 53 years, find the authority to make such a decision?” The people of Turkey make their own decisions, he added.

At the same time, Erdogan announced that Turkey might hold a referendum next year regarding the continuation of the EU accession talks, stressing that Brussels must make a decision regarding Turkey’s membership. The leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahtcla, took up a position in favour of Erdogan’s response to Schultz, and stressed that Turkey does not need anyone. He too was critical of EU bias towards the terrorist PKK.

This prompts us to ask a question which has actually been around for years. Who needs the other more: the European Union or Turkey? Many Turkish analysts believe that Turkey is stronger and more sophisticated than ever before, and does not need to join the EU.

However, the EU needs Turkey desperately to slow the flow of refugees heading for its borders, as the current uncontrolled numbers may lead to the collapse of the whole union. The analysts also believe that the EU is in an unenviable position with the British people voting to leave; the emergence of other signs that the union’s disintegration is a possibility; and the victory of US president-elect Donald Trump, which worries a number of EU member states. As such, it is feasible that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. A number of European officials recognise this and their statements are more rational than the provocative rhetoric of the likes of Schultz; they are well aware of the importance of Turkey for Europe’s security and stability.

After the EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss the issue of continuing accession talks with Turkey, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stressed Ankara’s right to take all necessary measures in the wake of the failed coup to prevent such attempts in the future. Johnson added that it is wrong to put more pressure on Ankara regarding the issue of detaining a number of Democratic Peoples’ Party MPs on terrorism-related cases. Hungary’s Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, said outside the same meeting that the EU needs to take account of the fact that its security is linked to Turkey’s security and stability. He also called on the EU to avoid escalating matters with Turkey and to exercise caution when criticising Ankara.

Such comments are very revealing. They suggest that it is definitely the EU which needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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