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Is there anything new on Turkiye’s path towards Europe?

August 8, 2023 at 9:16 am

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech after the cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkiye on August 07, 2023 [Doğukan Keskinkılıç/Anadolu Agency ]

As usual, Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan has made another political U-turn with his country’s foreign policy. After stressing repeatedly just a few days before the NATO summit in Lithuania last month that Sweden has still not done all that is required of it to Turkiye’s satisfaction as agreed (along with Finland) in June last year, and criticising the Swedes for allowing protesters to burn copies of the Holy Quran, Erdogan has agreed to proceed with the country joining NATO.

Following a meeting between Erdogan, the Swedish Prime Minister and NATO’s secretary-general, the organisation’s closing statement included Turkiye’s agreement to refer Sweden’s NATO accession to the parliament in Ankara. In return, Sweden made certain commitments, including cooperation with Turkiye to combat terrorism, as well as support for Turkiye’s accession to the EU.

This was seen as a successful manoeuvre by Erdogan, as he linked the issue of Sweden’s membership of NATO to his country’s rights, and there are potential gains with other parties. He has basically made Sweden part of his negotiations with the West in general. Some sources said that Ankara’s approval came after obtaining promises that the US would complete the F-16 fighter aircraft deal with Turkiye, which includes selling new planes and developing those it already has. According to a Turkish official cited by Bloomberg, Turkiye has also been promised the acceleration of its accession to the EU.

Does this mean that Turkiye’s path towards EU membership is about to conclude because of the West’s need for Sweden to join NATO? There is no doubt that Ankara has made a diplomatic breakthrough by addressing the Swedish matter within its package of outstanding issues with the West, as well as making some potential gains for itself simply by agreeing to refer Sweden’s NATO membership to parliament. Moreover, the agreement as announced — and all that is unspoken — supports the Turkish narrative regarding Western double standards in its dealings with Ankara with regard to combating terrorism and NATO-EU issues.

NATO chief: Sweden fulfilled Turkiye’s demands to join alliance

However, Turkiye has not used all of the cards in its hand regarding the Swedish issue. It will be some time before the matter is presented to parliament for approval, leaving Erdogan some margin for manoeuvre if necessary.

Whether all of this means that Ankara’s European dream will come true soon remains to be seen. I believe that Turkiye’s cards related to Sweden and the West’s need for Turkiye within NATO in the confrontation with Russia make it likely that there will be concrete steps towards EU membership in the near future. However, the process is still unlikely to be rushed through.

The F-16 deal with the US may be the first step in this direction. The deal came as an alternative to Ankara’s participation in the F-35 programme, from which Washington removed Turkiye after it bought a missile defence system from Russia. There have been objections from the US Congress to the deal, or at least a wish to pass it with conditions — such as not using F-16s against Greece — which Turkiye rejects. However, recent statements by the US State Department and Turkish officials hint at a promise from US President Joe Biden to work towards the completion of the deal.

Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that Turkiye’s membership of the EU is still almost impossible to conceive; no fundamental change has occurred and it is difficult to see anything happening in the foreseeable future. This is because all EU members have to agree to open negotiations with Turkiye and then accept its membership. This is very unlikely, as Greece and Greek Cyprus at the very least will use their veto. There are no indications of this changing under pressure from the US or other parties.

Hence, what is available in this context are tactical or medium-term gains, not least in the cancellation of the Schengen visa requirements for Turkish citizens and the development of the customs union. The visa issue was part of the refugee repatriation agreement that Turkiye signed with the EU in March 2016, but it was not implemented due to Brussels believing that Ankara had not met its conditions. However, since then Turkish-European relations have developed; the European countries need Turkiye on side in the Russia-Ukraine; and the EU approves of Ankara’s handling of the issue of irregular migration. These are all reasons to believe that the visa implementation is possible, logical and expected. It may not be quick or comprehensive, but it is possible to work on a partial or amended version of the agreement in the autumn, after the EU raises the matter in the relevant European institutions.

The development of the customs union, meanwhile, is of common interest for both sides. I have said before that this or a special trade partnership between Ankara and Brussels is a logical and practical end to Turkiye’s European path separate from the illusions of full membership on the one hand and complete estrangement on the other. This seems possible in the medium-term if Brussels has the political will.

OPINION: Did Sweden get into NATO?

The next few months will, therefore, witness a multilateral negotiation process that, in addition to Turkiye and Sweden, includes NATO, the EU and the US, with any positive step on one matter being linked to a similar one in another. However, I expect that Ankara will eventually agree to Sweden’s accession to NATO in return for obtaining reasonable gains elsewhere, as it has succeeded in linking the issues together.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21on 7 August 2023

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