Turkey & the EU: Is Merkel Closing The Door?

by Andrew Stuttaford

The protracted negotiations between the EU and Turkey over possible Turkish membership of Europe’s tatty club are a farce. They should have been scrapped years ago. If the EU was a ‘trade+’ association, Turkish membership would have been something to be welcomed. Sadly that’s not what the EU is, and the closer it becomes to a federal state, the less attractive the idea of Turkish membership will—quite rightly— be to the EU’s voters.  Judging by what polls there are, this is an electorate that is already fairly heavily opposed to Turkish membership, so much so that, in many respects, it is an insult to what’s left of European democracy that these talks (cheered on, needless to say, by the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron) have been allowed to stagger on for as long as they have.

And the insult does not only go in one direction: the long dance with Brussels has been profoundly humiliating to many Turks, and is clearly generating anti-western sentiment in a proud, strategically important country where this is the last thing that we should want to develop. A straightforward, friendly no (coupled with the offer of all the trade agreements that Turkey could want) would trigger a very difficult conversation, but in the long-term it would almost certainly be better for the EU/Turkish relationship than this endless maybe.

Chancellor Merkel, at least, may finally have had enough.  Her CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, have long opposed Turkish membership of the EU, but have been prepared to go along with the continuation of the talks. The current drama in Istanbul now seems to have changed that, and it looks as if Merkel is now preparing to block any further talks.

That’s the right thing to do, but it is has upset Marc Champion of Bloomberg News:

Turkey’s membership aspirations have been central to several improvements in rights and freedoms that made the recent Gezi Park protests possible. Just to become a candidate, Turkey had to make big changes, such as abolishing the death penalty. If Merkel is truly concerned about human rights in Turkey, she should accelerate the accession process rather than block it. The logical thing to do is to expand the talks to the areas where Turkey needs to improve most, such as justice and fundamental rights; freedom and security; education and culture; and taxation.

… Germany’s killing of the talks would achieve the opposite of what’s intended, hurting most of all the pro-Western, Twitter-savvy 20-somethings who are demanding their rights.

There’s a decent logic to that argument, but it bypasses the sad fact that “the pro-Western, Twitter-savvy 20-somethings” of Taksim Square are probably less representative of Turkey as whole than is the “mildly Islamist” (to quote the Economist) Prime Minister Erdogan. To believe that chatting nicely with Brussels will change that Anatolian reality any time soon is fantasy. 

And there is something else. If most European voters do not want Turkey to join, what sort of message does it send to Turkey about democracy if the EU’s leadership decides to press on in that direction regardless? 

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