Interregnum in Turkey-EU Relations

Guest writer Egemen Bezci discusses the recent nadir in the relationship between Turkey and the EU.

Turkey’s three decade dream of European Union membership is on the brink. Turkey’s EU accession is dying, but neither side has officially called for termination. This deteriorating situation can also be referred to as an interregnum that has placed precarious Turkey-EU relations in limbo. Never before in the history of the modern Turkey have Turkish decision-makers and European leaders made critical public statements about each other, expressing uneasiness over the current state of relations. The only way out of this impasse is the renewal of committed EU accession talks for Turkey.

After Germany and the Netherlands prohibited Turkish politicians from campaigning in their countries for the recent referendum, Turkey’s President Erdoğan accused German and Dutch leaders of following "Nazi practices," and called the EU "fascist" and "cruel," accusing it of engaging in a crusade against the Islam.[1] Meanwhile, European leaders were not idle as in the face of belligerent rhetoric from Turkish politicians. For instance, Volker Bouffier, Vice-Chairman of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, harshly responded, “Mr. Erdoğan and his government are not welcome in our country, and that must be now be understood”.[2]

Some of these public statements can be explained by domestic pressure on leaders, who were using the foreign policy card in their election campaigns. For example, President Erdoğan reaped the rewards of anti-Western sentiment in the constitutional referendum of April 16, 2017, gaining expanded executive powers.[3] Additionally, over the past decade, under the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP), Turkish politics has become more authoritarian and the rule of law has been largely violated. Following the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the Council of Europe put Turkey on the watchlist, due to the country’s deteriorating human rights record.[4] However, the general trend of Turkish-EU relations reflects a structural change that is not fully explained by domestic political considerations or Turkey’s shift towards authoritarian politics that undermine the rule of law.

Recent statements from Turkey and European countries show that their focus has strayed from Turkey’s EU accession. In the aftermath of his narrow victory in the referendum, President Erdoğan continued to use anti-EU rhetoric, saying that Turkey might hold a referendum to reinstate the death penalty and withdraw its EU accession bid.[5] President Erdoğan’s desire to reinstate capital punishment elicited a strong reaction from Brussels. President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker responded to the Turkish President by saying that the death penalty “would be the reddest of all red lines.”[6]

There are some in Ankara who argue that President Erdoğan is deliberately provoking Brussels into terminating Turkey’s EU membership bid in order to be released from the legal and political requirements imposed by the accession process.[7]  However, as veteran journalist Murat Yetkin observed, termination would be a nightmare scenario. Not only would it damage Turkey’s economic and political conditions, but it would also eliminate the EU's normative power – and an unstable Turkey represents a major security risk to the EU. Indeed, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the German domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz – BfV), recently warned that the spillover effect of the conflicts in Turkey and Syria are highly threatening to Europe.[8]

Without accession talks, Brussels would not hold the leverage necessary to prevent Turkey from destabilizing further. Dr. Paul T. Levin, an expert on Turkish-EU relations at Stockholm University, explained, “The promise of full membership was the carrot that once arguably propelled reform. With that promise gone, so is the leverage that the EU once held over Turkey. Other inducements, like visa liberalization and the 'modernization' of the Customs Union, do not have the same power of attraction. But the EU is still by far Turkey’s biggest trading partner, so there should reasonably be limits to how much Ankara will want the relationship to deteriorate.”[9]

Following the EU-Turkey refugee deal of March 2016, the transactional dimension of the relations has been tested. Although both sides have incentives to develop “wise relations,” without the emphasis on accession, Turkey-EU relations continue to deteriorate. Lucia Najslova, an assistant professor of EU affairs at Charles University in Prague, explains that “regardless of Turkey’s attitude to EU accession, the expectation that a candidate will do more than members simply violates and contradicts the logic of accession process.”[10]

Therefore, in order to endure the interregnum in Turkish-EU relations without further harm to both sides, Ankara and Brussels should realize that their mutual dependency is deeply rooted and multilayered. Thus, instead of openly hostile remarks in public, wise politics should be implemented immediately to return to “a committed” accession process. Otherwise, a fragile, transactional Turkish-EU relationship will inevitably deteriorate further.


Egemen Bezci is a visiting researcher at Stockholm University Institute of Turkish Studies.

[1] “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slams 'fascist and cruel' Europe and says Turkey may review ties after powers referendum,” The Independent, 21 March 2017; “Erdoğan accuses EU of 'crusade' against Islam,” 17 March 2017.

[2] “Merkel Ally: Turkey's Erdoğan 'Not Welcome' in Germany,” VOA, 21 March 2017.

[3] Ishaan Tharoor, “The spat between Turkey and the Netherlands is all about winning votes,” Washington Post, 13 March 2017.

[4] “Turkey Put on Council of Europe Watchlist Over Rights Record,” Bloomberg, 25 April 2017.

[5] “Erdoğan: Turkey to hold referendum on EU membership,” ABC News, 1 May 2017.

[6] Cynthia Kroet, “Jean-Claude Juncker: Turkey’s death penalty a ‘red line’ in EU talks,” Politico, 8 May 2017.

[7] Murat Yetkin, "A Nightmare Scenerio," Hurriyet Daily News,  27 April 2017.

[8] “German intelligence boss: Threat level remains high,”  DW, 08 March 2017.

[9] Interview with Dr. Paul Levin, Stockholm, Sweden, 8 May 2017.

[10] Interview with Dr. Lucia Najslova, Stockholm, Sweden, 8 May 2017.