Frustration and despair in Brussels

It is not easy these days to be a European politician and defend the need for Turkey and the EU to continue talking to each other about the possibility of accession one day. Since Turkey started backsliding on crucial criteria for EU membership — such as freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary — the friends of Turkey in Brussels went on the defensive.

How to keep arguing in favor of negotiations that are going nowhere, when at the same time Tur

It is not easy these days to be a European politician and defend the need for Turkey and the EU to continue talking to each other about the possibility of accession one day.

Since Turkey started backsliding on crucial criteria for EU membership — such as freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary — the friends of Turkey in Brussels went on the defensive.

How to keep arguing in favor of negotiations that are going nowhere, when at the same time Turkey’s fragile democracy is taking one blow after another? On the other hand, those who have always objected to Turkey’s EU membership understand that this is the moment they have been waiting for Turkey’s opponents in the European Parliament (EP), for instance, have become more vocal and assertive in pushing for one aggressive statement after the other, hoping that eventually a frustrated EU will pull the plug on the accession talks or an insulted and humiliated Turkey will walk away from the table.

I could witness all these mechanisms and strategies in full play when I visited Brussels last week.

My former colleagues from the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) in the EP had invited me and two other speakers to explain the situation and provide them with an answer to the question of how to deal with Turkey. After Turkey became an official candidate country in 1999, the Greens have always defended Turkey’s EU membership, believing that a stable, prosperous and especially democratic Turkey would be a great asset to the EU.

Unfortunately, these high expectations have been severely damaged in the last couple of years as a result of the democratic backlash in Turkey. For understandable reasons, a growing number of Green politicians have started wondering whether it still makes sense to stick to their old position when the reality on the ground is moving into a different direction.

They feel the pressure from Green voters who strongly object to President Recep Tayyip ErdoIan’s toxic mix of authoritarianism and soft Islamization. They also see that former allies in the EP like the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE/ADLE) have changed their position and are now actively campaigning for suspension of the negotiations.

In my presentation I stressed that all this speculation in the EP about stopping the negotiations temporarily does not make much sense, primarily because it is simply not going to happen. It is not the EP that decides on such a radical step but EU member states.

Every informed Brussels insider knows that Berlin, Paris and London have no plans at all to pick a fight with Ankara because Turkey’s strategic value for the EU is too big (energy, European jihadists, refugees). But there is another reason why slamming the door on Turkey is not the right answer to the current democratic deterioration in the country: The EU would be punishing the wrong people.

I am sure ErdoIan would use a European rejection as further proof the West hates Muslims and would feel emboldened to continue constructing his New Turkey without any external restrictions. It would be the democrats in Turkey that would suffer most from the EU distancing itself from Turkey.

So, if suspension is neither realistic nor desirable, what then? On the technical negotiations, the options are frustratingly limited. Of course, the Greek Cypriots should be pushed to lift their veto on several chapters, including two crucial ones on the rule of law and the judiciary, but nobody knows when that pressure will produce any results.

Better focus on two other issues that are more visible and important for Turkish citizens — visa liberalization and the Turkish economy, bringing about a revised customs union. Getting rid of the current humiliating visa procedures would definitively be a big step forward but the bad news is that it seems Turkey is dragging its feet on a whole range of reforms and changes the government promised to implement.

That will only play into the hands of the European skeptics.

There is more positive news on the customs union, where an agreement has been reached on the scope of the revision, including Turkey’s urgent demand of being involved in the trade negotiations between the EU and the US.

One thing is sure: On Turkey-EU relations, it requires a lot of patience and optimism to confront the despair and pessimism that is so fashionable in Brussels today.

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN