(c) Dahrendorf Forum. Picture by Jorge Martin for Dahrendorf Symposium 2016

Turkey as Europe’s Gatekeeper

With Turkey currently regarded as the key to solving, or at least abating, the refugee crisis, cracks in EU-Turkey relations have been swiftly smoothed over. In this blog post, Çağlar Keyder recapitulates this new relationship.

Soon after 2005, when Brussels declared Turkey’s eligibility to begin accession negotiations, everything changed. Turkey appeared to have met the Copenhagen criteria, but it quickly became clear that the European Commission would not be permitted to proceed on the basis of formal procedures: politics in Berlin and Paris, as well as in most eastern European capitals, intervened.

Turkey’s progress until this point had not been smooth, and not only because of its own political upheavals. The countries that made up the EU had been unable to reconcile the desire to build a supra-state based on cultural affinity, defined by civilizational ties and celebrating a newly-found unity, with simple adherence to the legal texts accumulating in the Acquis and the decisions of the Court of Justice. The formal criteria distilled from these pages suggested an association based on constitutional belonging—a “cool” club. It was clear that Turkey did not share the “European culture” and an argument for civilizational congruence would be a stretch, even if significant areas of intersection existed.

Impediments to EU membership

During the second half of the decade, political, rather than legal, arguments dominated the debate: Turkey was too big, too close to the Middle East, too foreign and, above all, too Islamic. When alternative membership, such as special partnership, were suggested, disappointment in Turkey became palpable. Perhaps Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his increasingly confident Justice and Development Party (AKP) found the estrangement convenient, and they reacted to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel in an increasingly nativist manner. But crucially, the EU’s reluctance to include Turkey also served to weaken the support for the European vision among the various levels of civil society. As the media, intellectual life, and public arena of associations were increasingly abandoned to AKP acolytes, the EU ideal seemed naïve and the erstwhile Euro-idealists lost their enthusiasm. It was then that Turkey’s possible role vis-à-vis Europe began to shrink. No longer a real candidate, it was relegated to peripheral status—borderland or buffer zone, but not integral to the EU. Islamophobic politicians in Europe grew bolder and sharpened their rhetoric, especially after the employment consequences of the 2008 crisis and the disastrous austerity treatment. It became clear now that EU’s borders would never be extended to reach Syria and Iraq: there would be the Anatolian peninsula in between.

Given this history, it is not surprising that Turkey-EU relations were placed on the back-burner and both sides were content to do nothing while bureaucrats in the Commission and in the EU ministry in Ankara shuffled paper. No advances were registered in the negotiation process and opening of chapters 23 and 24 of the Acquis Communautaire, the body of common obligations that prospective member states must accept in the road to accession, failed to appear on the agenda. As Erdoğan made significant advances toward autocratic rule and his government seemed to be involved in the Syrian civil war in ways that would thwart EU’s goals, no one expected an overture from the Turkish side. Meanwhile most of Europe’s dealings with the AKP government appeared to be mediated by NATO.

The EU’s dilemma with the refugee deal

This mutual accommodation came to an end in 2015 with the accelerated flow of mostly Syrian refugees traversing the buffer zone and alighting on Greek islands. The imminent threat to internal political balances that massive inflows of refugees posed mobilized European leaders, and Merkel, as the de facto boss of the EU, took the initiative to open negotiations with Turkey in order to curb the flow. Then Prime Minister Davutoglu pragmatically thought to cash in on this opportunity to revitalize EU negotiations with Merkel’s help. The details of the agreement that was reached are well known. While the financial contribution expected by the government was certainly justified, considering Turkey’s laudable undertaking of the refugee burden, the promises of visa liberalization and especially the opening of new chapters of the acquis, notably Chapters 23 and 24, were unexpected given Turkey’s apparent disinterest in EU membership in recent years.

It is not clear whether Merkel’s promises could be considered binding for the EU, but Davutoğlu interpreted the revival of the EU project as a personal triumph. Even if the goal seemed distant, this was a notable departure from the Turkey-as-buffer-state model. It is not clear if Erdoğan appreciates this opportunity, seeing as all his alternative geopolitical strategies, notably in the Middle East, have met their demise. He did interpret Davutoğlu’s seeming success, however, as a challenge to his one-man rule and promptly asked for his resignation. In view of the divisions within the EU, with varying architecture of adherence, louder voices for the dismantling of the more federal aspects of the community, virtual abandonment of the civilizational ideal, a growing number of autocracies among the member states and various threats to exit, Turkey’s initiative appears to be well timed. Once the grand design is abandoned, surely a peripheral location somewhere within the flexible fabric could be found for Turkey as well—even if the new status will fall far short of delivering the freedom and democracy that Euro-idealists once hoped for. For Turkey, the EU will no longer be the grand project that almost unified the nation at one point, but such a loose accommodation might well resolve the EU’s dilemma: whether to allow Turkey inside the tent or hope to maintain it as a gatekeeper.

About the author: Cağlar Keyder is professor of sociology at the State University of New York in Binghamton and at Koc University in Istanbul.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.