Behind the Scenes: Turkish delight?

Behind the Scenes: Turkish delight?
Credit: Instagram/RTErdogan


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

Turks go to the polls this weekend to elect their next president. The opposition candidate has pledged to reinvigorate relations with the EU but is that a feasible prospect?

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been the most powerful man in Türkiye for two decades, serving first as prime minister and then reforming the system so that his follow-up job as president had all the power.

This month he faces a tough task to extend that run into a third decade, as challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu seeks to dethrone him and undo many of the changes that Erdoğan has made while in office.

A major reset that Kılıçdaroğlu has in mind is the state of Turkish relations with the West, by improving its membership within NATO and reanimating its stalled bid to join the EU. One will be easier than the other.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Erdoğan might well be in trouble if polls are to be believed. Rotten economic performance and a widely-criticised response to deadly earthquakes earlier this year have soured support for the incumbent president.

That has opened the door for Kılıçdaroğlu and his coalition of six opposition parties to mount a serious challenge. The result of the presidential vote could well change Türkiye’s geopolitical course overnight if it goes against the current leader.

First up would be Turkish participation in NATO, which has been called into question in defence circles thanks to Erdoğan’s veto of Sweden’s membership bid. Finland eventually got the nod but its Nordic neighbour is still in the waiting room.

It is generally accepted that a Kılıçdaroğlu victory would mean a green light from Ankara, perhaps in time for NATO’s big summit in July, where the military alliance would like to welcome its 32nd member with symbolic pomp and circumstance.

A new president might not spell the end for Turkish tolerance of Russian aggression in Ukraine but it might mean that Türkiye is a little more strict towards companies that use it to bypass sanctions. That would be a big win for its Western allies.

It would not take too much effort to paper over some of the cracks left by Erdoğan’s time in power, at least when it comes to NATO and wider international relations. When it comes to Europe and Brussels though, it is far more complex.

EU question

Türkiye applied to join what is now the EU more than thirty years ago and its membership procedure has been ongoing since before Erdoğan first reached the summit of political power.

Long-stalled thanks to the government’s embracing of norms that are decried in Brussels, as well as the unresolved Cyprus question and the current president’s attempts to weaponise migration against the EU, Türkiye’s bid is going nowhere fast.

Despite the complete lack of progress and public calls from certain European politicians for the membership process to be scrapped altogether, there is still significant support within Türkiye for joining.

According to a German Marshall Fund survey in 2022, 61.4% said they would vote to join. Among the 18-24 age group, that figure was 75%. More than half said that EU membership would bring personal benefits.

On timing, there is – entirely justifiable – pessimism. Just 15% say that the country will join the bloc at all, while over 50% say Brussels has no intention of accepting Türkiye as a member. 

Lack of reform progress and outright breaches of the enlargement criteria aside, the EU has a massive political headache when it comes to new members. Ukraine’s successful bid for candidate status has made it even more complex.

Formal talks will likely get the green light in December and although full Ukrainian membership is still a far-off prospect, the ramifications of allowing such a large country into the bloc are just starting to dawn upon some of the existing members.

Issues such as the common agricultural policy, the formation of the European Parliament and cohesion funding are all now cropping up. Eastern Europe’s exposure to tariff-free grain imports has already caused tempers to flare.

Admitting Ukraine, as well as the Western Balkans – without which Europe will “never be complete”, remember – will be a Herculean legislative, technical and political challenge. Throwing Türkiye into the mix makes it completely impossible.

So therein lies the rub: perhaps the damage done to Turkish EU aspirations has been so marked that enlargement-sceptic nations will only consider the Western Balkan and Ukraine bids if assurances are given that Türkiye will never join.

This does not have to be a bad thing if Brussels and Ankara can chart a course that includes the benefits of the accession process, such as the required domestic reforms and pre-membership perks enjoyed by candidate countries, without eventual membership.

Unlike the Balkans and Ukraine, it is not geopolitically necessary to make Türkiye an EU member. However, that does not mean that Brussels should keep Ankara out in the cold.

Visa liberalisation, custom union updates, extra help for the devastated earthquake-hit regions, better terms for the migration deal and more besides could well be on the docket if a Kılıçdaroğlu administration wants them.

Behind the Scenes does not agree that Brussels would rather stick with Erdoğan because he does not ask hard questions of the EU, as some pundits have claimed. There are too many intelligent people in this town to write off the opportunity offered by a fresh start with Kılıçdaroğlu.

Charting a new course with a new Turkish leadership will be extremely difficult and expectations will have to be managed. But the EU wants to be a geopolitical superpower. It might soon be time to prove it.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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