EU's relationship with Turkey now more complex than ever
Published 14/11/2015 | 02:30
Turkey's relationship with Europe rarely runs smoothly. The stops and starts of its decades-old bid to join the European Union have chipped away at the appeal of membership for many ordinary Turks.
Turkey applied for EU membership in 1987 but accession talks did not begin until 2005 and Ankara has since completed just one of the 33 'chapters' needed to join the union.
In Europe, attitudes to Turkey becoming a member of the EU range from strong scepticism in France to a warmer position from Ireland, considered one of the most supportive of Turkish accession.
Not so long ago Turkish officials liked to trot out the line that Europe needed Turkey more than Turkey needed Europe.
Today the picture is considerably more complicated. Turkey is grappling with the raging war next door in Syria and fallout in the form of millions of refugees and Isil attacks on Turkish soil. The Turkish currency is in freefall and the Kurdish question has again flared into violence. European anxiety about the exodus of refugees streaming from Syria means some reconfiguring of relationship between Brussels and Ankara is taking place.
And so it was that the latest EU progress report on Turkey, expected to be released in October, was postponed until after the country's recent snap elections, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party swept back to a parliamentary majority.
In doing so, the party dramatically recovered from the near 20pc drop in votes it suffered in a previous election in June.
Though the AKP was happy that the EU progress report was held back until after the elections, the document will have made for uncomfortable reading for Erdogan and his circle. While it praised Turkey for taking in more than two million Syrian refugees, the report paints a country grown increasingly authoritarian under the AKP leader.
Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003 and then Turkey's first directly elected president in 2014, was initially lauded for turning Turkey into what appeared to be a useful model of Muslim democracy and transforming its once ailing economy into a regional powerhouse.
But in recent years, Europe has grown concerned about brutal police crackdowns on protests, a purge of the judiciary, and attacks on media. Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol wrote that the new AKP electoral victory would usher in "an interesting experiment of elected authoritarianism, or 'illiberal democracy', perhaps the most interesting case in the early 21st century".
The EU progress report said there had been "serious backsliding" on freedom of expression and the judiciary had been undermined. "It emphasises an overall negative trend in the respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights."
Turkey's declared commitment to joining the EU was offset by moves at home that "ran against European standards" it continued, urging the new government to address what it called "these urgent priorities".
The report highlighted a raft of criminal cases against journalists and writers, intimidation of media outlets and changes to legislation related to the internet. "After several years of progress on freedom of expression, serious backsliding was seen over the past two years," it said. Referring to Turkey's justice system, it said the "independence of the judiciary and the principle of separation of powers have been undermined since 2014 and judges and prosecutors have been under strong political pressure."
Some argued the EU could have been stronger in its criticisms, seeing in the relatively muted language all the political sensitivities of engaging with such a strategically important Nato member whose cooperation Brussels desperately needs in addressing Europe's migration crisis.
With its shared border with both Syria and Iraq, Turkey is now the main starting point for refugees coming to the continent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Istanbul before the recent ballot, has said there can be no solution to the crisis, one of the biggest challenges Europe faces right now, without Turkey.
The European Commission is negotiating an agreement with Ankara which would see Turkey absorb more Syrian refugees in return for easier visa access to the EU, extra aid, and an accelerating of the stalled accession process.
Following the November 1 election, Erdogan has shown all the signs of being freshly emboldened. Speaking at a G20 summit in Turkey last weekend, he said the election result "completely removed political uncertainty" in the country and gave him "the opportunity to take stronger steps on regional issues".
Ankara knows how much Brussels needs its help in tackling a migration crisis that is raising tensions and empowering far-right groups in Europe. The Turkey-Europe relationship could be entering a very interesting phase. Whether the back and forth actually results in any meaningful movement in the accession process remains to be seen.