BACKGROUND: When Cyprus held the rotating EU presidency during the last six months of 2012, Turkey–EU relations froze solid with no progress in their negotiations and minimal official contact between Ankara and Brussels. Leading EU countries, such as France and Germany, openly expressed their unease regarding Turkey’s joining the European Union and instead proposed establishing a “privileged partnership” for Turkey short of membership, which Ankara has rejected. As a result, talks between Ankara and Brussels became rather quiet, stale, and unproductive throughout the following years and leading up to the present. The Turkish has become understandably frustrated by the lack of progress in the accession process..
Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy had stated that Turkey is situated in Asia rather than Europe, affirming a view common among many Europeans that Turkey was not suitable for full EU membership due to its distant location and large Muslim population. France has played a lead role in impeding Turkey’s accession since the negotiations for accession started. The French government led the effort in 2006 to suspend the negotiations after Turkey refused to recognize the Republic of Cyprus. France vetoed 11 out of the 35 chapters, which caused the accession talks to virtually halt (only eight remain suspended as of early 2013). However, since Sarkozy left office in 2012, France has had a revamped policy regarding Turkish accession. President François Hollande has openly stated his support for Turkey’s becoming an EU member at some point. In February 2013, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu of his willingness to open Chapter 22 regarding “Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments.”
This French move was followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to Ankara in late February, where she not only supported the opening of Chapter 22, but also suggested potentially opening other chapters to advance the accession talks. Germany’s backing of France in welcoming the resumption of accession talks between Turkey and the EU constitutes a major shift for Berlin. Germany has long been another opponent of Turkish accession, despite – or perhaps because – it is home to the largest Turkish population outside of the native country. Indeed, chancellor Merkel was the first to propose a “privileged partnership” between Turkey and the EU as an alternative to full membership. Many Germans have long held a position of not wanting Turkey to become a member state, despite its booming economy and critical geographic location.
EU officials have also become more interested in making progress on Turkey’s candidacy. On October 12, 2011, the EU Commission released a “Positive Agenda” that listed and rated progress being made by Turkey. The document offered favorable conclusions regarding Turkey’s political reforms in key areas. This publication provides a framework and roadmap for both parties to make further progress. In 2012, the commissioner for EU enlargement, Stefan Füle, said that “We, the Europeans, should open chapters to negotiations with Turkey in the first half of 2013. Otherwise, in the upcoming term, our interest in Turkey may be greater than Turkey’s interest in us.”
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s impressive economic performance during the past decade, contrasted with the overall economic weakness within the EU, has made Ankara a more attractive partner for the Union. Turkey’s economy is projected to grow for the next decade at an average rate of 6.7 percent per year. It would already rank as the sixth or seventh largest among EU members. Turkey’s geography also makes it a natural conduit for EU trade and investment flowing eastward to Eurasia and the Middle East as well as oil and gas from the Caspian Basin entering the EU. Already integrated with the EU through a customs union, Turkey offers a large market for European goods and simultaneously acts as a gateway to markets in the Middle East and North Africa. For Berlin, this is especially crucial given that Germany sustains its economy through exports.
Conversely, Ankara’s continued interest in joining the EU results in part from Turkey’s economy still being oriented towards Europe. Although the percentage of Turkish trade involving the EU has continued to decline over time, some 38 percent of its imports originated from the European Union in 2011, whereas 46 percent of Turkey’s exports go to EU members. Those shares amounted to $85 billion and $58 billion, respectively. These trade volumes have kept increasing despite the current Euro-zone crisis and the more rapid growth of Turkey’s economic links with Russia as well as with several other counties. Turkey’s imports from the EU increased by 35.1 percent and 19.8 percent in 2010 and 2011 respectively, while exports grew 18.4 and 12 percent in those same years. And approximately two-thirds of Turkey’s foreign direct investment still comes from the EU.
But one might wonder how long Germany will hold this more flexible position. Germany’s reaction to the recent thaw between France and Turkey is further complicated by the differing views among parties within the country. Specifically, Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and her coalition partner the Free Democratic Party (FDP) differ in their approach on whether or not Turkey should become a partial or full member of the European Union. The Free Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) both officially favor full Turkish accession into the European Union. Meanwhile the Christian Democratic Party prefers granting Turkey only partial membership in order to maintain good relations with one of Germany’s biggest trading partners. For Germany, Turkey is a crucial investor, and vital trading partner. Over the past decade Turkey has contributed about $1.5 billion in direct investment and provided a market of about $35 billion. Even though Merkel reassured Turkey about the accession process, she did not promise full accession.
CONCLUSIONS: Berlin’s encouraging approach towards Turkish accession can, in part, be attributed to the looming German national elections in 2014. In the 2009 election, the Christian Democratic Party eased its anti-Turkish position in order to appeal to the 700,000 Turkish voters and 3 million residents of Turkish (and Kurdish) origin living in Germany. The CDU might be preparing for a similar electoral gambit on this occasion.
In addition, although Germany has now come out in favor of opening a new chapter in negotiations, the German government has conditioned expanding the renewed EU-Turkey talks to cover additional chapters to Turkey’s applying its Ankara Agreement to the Republic of Cyprus. By enunciating this condition, the Merkel government has indicated its willingness to engage more with Turkey in the field of European integration, but stands firm on the matter of its EU accession. Indeed, the chapter opened is relatively minor and not subject to much controversy, unlike the chapters concerning human rights or Cyprus. Hence, Merkel’s change of position is more symbolic than significant.
Many other EU leaders naturally want to focus on addressing the EU’s internal problems before seriously discussing a Turkish accession. Finally, despite the political pivots made by Germany and France, Turkey still faces many hurdles in the accession process. For example, France is still blocking four chapters, while Cyprus is blocking another six. Yet the fact that the two leading EU countries are now demonstrating a willingness to re-engage with Turkey is a sign that the predictions that Turkey’s European adventure was nearing its end were premature. Ultimately it serves to underline that Turkey and the EU are in fact bound together by shared economic interests that ensure that the Turkish accession process will be kept alive.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".