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Pragmatism or Principle? Germany’s Turkish Dilemma

Image Courtesy of the European People’s Party, © 2012.

2016 proved to be a particularly difficult year for relations between Germany and Turkey. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to choose between pragmatism and principle in her policy responses to issues ranging from the refugee crisis to the attempted coup aimed at toppling the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Her decisions mainly reflected a clear sense of the former, even in the face of heavy domestic and international criticism. In the case of Turkey, however, it is time that Merkel shift away from pure pragmatism and towards a more principled approach to decision-making. She should take a firmer stance on the illiberal developments and erosion of democracy that have accelerated in Turkey over the past year, namely by suspending EU accession talks until Turkey takes serious steps to improve the situation.

Merkel’s pragmatism was embodied by the March 2016 deal to stop the flow of migrants entering Greece from Turkey. Under pressure both domestically and within Europe due to her stance on the refugee crisis, Merkel pushed the pact through in a desperate attempt to cut the number of migrants entering Europe and salvage some semblance of European unity. Pragmatism, particularly for fear of Turkey reneging on the refugee deal, continued to characterize Merkel’s subsequent policy decisions, such as allowing Erdoğan to bring charges against German comedian Jan Böhmermann for a satirical poem read on German television.

Events of the past few months have slightly shifted the balance of realpolitik and principled idealism, but have not led to significant policy changes. Facing mounting domestic pressure regarding her stance on Turkey (and a general election next September), Merkel sharpened her tone and referred to Erdoğan’s crackdown on the Turkish media as “highly alarming.” In November, the European Parliament symbolically voted to suspend EU accession talks with Turkey due to the “disproportionate repressive measures” implemented after the coup. At its latest meeting in December, the European Union struck a compromise by deciding against an official freeze in EU accession talks, but agreeing not to expand them to new policy areas.

Unfortunately, this compromise will only keep Turkey’s accession talks in a form of suspended animation, just enough to keep the pretense alive but not enough to ensure success given that expansion to other policy chapters has been stopped. The European Union should have the courage to admit that in the current situation, accession negotiations with Turkey are futile. The European Union has spent the past 11 years negotiating EU accession with Turkey. It is time to end the pretense that Turkey meets the criteria for joining the European Union at this time and recognize that Turkey’s political trajectory is going backwards rather than forward. The European Union can no longer ignore the blatant contraventions of democratic principles and human rights in Turkey in order to maintain the fiction of future EU membership and keep the refugee pact intact. By not openly recognizing the current political reality in Turkey, both Merkel and the European Union are undermining their credibility and the values the European Union stands for.

Angela Merkel should follow her principles and join Austria in supporting the suspension of Turkey’s accession talks until Turkey implements significant reforms in line with democratic principles and the rule of law. The suspension of accession talks would signal to Turkey that the EU’s membership criteria will not be loosened due to extenuating circumstances, and that Turkey needs to adhere to democratic norms in order to be seriously considered as a candidate country. While Turkey will not be pleased with a suspension of accession talks, it will not completely disengage from Europe due to its dependence on the funding attached to the refugee deal, the necessity for close cooperation on security issues, particularly following recent terror attacks in Berlin and Istanbul, and Turkey’s economic reliance on the European Union (its number one import and export partner), especially at a difficult time for the Turkish economy.

Should the European Union suspend accession talks with Turkey, it will still need to strive to keep channels of communication open and continue a dialogue with Turkey until the situation improves and accession talks can resume. The European Union should focus on other areas of practical cooperation in the meantime, such as security and terrorism issues, an upgrade of the EU-Turkey customs union, a successful conclusion to the Cyprus peace talks, and the implementation of the visa liberalization agreement for Turkish citizens traveling in Europe. Close coordination on these matters is not only politically necessary since Turkey is a strategic partner of the European Union, but also serves as an important sign of continuing commitment on both sides and can help reduce tensions in a delicate political situation. By continuing its partnership with Turkey on such issues, the European Union can demonstrate that the suspension of EU accession talks is not meant to punish the Turkish people, but to serve as a warning against the increasingly autocratic tendencies of the Turkish government.

Merkel and other European leaders now face a choice between pragmatism and principles. The European Union should finally let go of its illusions and admit that the accession talks have come to a breaking point. Using potential EU accession as a carrot and stick for decades has not brought about long-lasting democratic change or strong independent institutions in Turkey – indeed, Turkey is heading in the opposite direction. EU membership no longer holds the allure it once did for Turkey, and the European public has also soured on further expansion of the European Union. Turkey’s steady slide into authoritarianism renders it incompatible with European values until wide-ranging reforms are implemented. Turning a blind eye to the situation in Turkey out of political expediency in order to preserve cynical deals such as the migration pact discredits European leaders and erodes their political legitimacy. In addition, it harms the appeal of EU membership and deals a blow to the European Union’s much-vaunted values. It is time for the European Union to take a more principled stand and suspend accession talks with Turkey until it implements meaningful reforms and returns to the democratic norms the European Union promotes.

Britt L. Bolin is a doctoral candidate in political economy at the University of Mannheim, where she earned her MA in political science in 2016. Britt is a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).


Britt Bolin

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