By Mark Fuechec
The election of the strongly pro-EU Emmanuel Macron as president of France has bolstered the bargaining position of the European Union vis-à-vis Turkey, just when a foreign policy based on liberal values is more important than ever.
Speaking at a ceremony marking his formal rejoining of the Justice and Development Party on May 2, President Erdoğan told the assembled party members that a failure to open all the remaining chapters in Turkey’s EU accession process could see the country saying “goodbye” to the discussions altogether.
This is not the first time the Turkish President has made such threats, which have become increasingly commonplace since his country’s bid to join the EU stalled in 2010, and are usually greeted in Brussels with a weary sense of diplomatic resignation.
But after a torrid couple of years, Macron’s victory has revived confidence across the continent. And Germany, long the defining force in EU-Turkish relations, has been quick to press the advantage of the fresh affirmation of the European project; issuing a multi-pronged rebuke of Ankara’s growing disregard for the rule of law and human rights.
On May 8, the German Interior Ministry granted political asylum to a group of Turkish military personnel and their families who had sought leave to remain in Germany following the widely criticised crackdown purge of government employees after the failed coup on July 15 2016.
That same day, German Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries told her Turkish counterpart that the rule of law remained a prerequisite for any expansion of economic ties with Germany, Turkey’s main trading partner.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel capped her government’s newly embolden stance with a speech by vowing not to make it possible for Turk’s living in Germany to vote in any future referendum on reinstating Turkey’s death penalty, stating: “We cannot allow voting in Germany that contradicts our values and our constitution.”
All this comes in the build-up to the May 25 NATO summit, where President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker are expected to meet President Erdoğan to discuss the future of Turkey’s relations with the EU.
Germany’s reinvigorated defence of EU values thus sends a clear message about the terms on which such a relationship is expected to continue. Not only is accession without a renewed commitment to the European Union’s values out of the question, other areas of cooperation between Ankara and Brussels are increasingly likely to be affected by the decline of Turkey’s democratic standards.
Ankara steps back
Significantly, after a period of growing animosity, Germany’s newly robust position seems to have worked; eliciting a restrained response from Ankara, markedly different in tone from the confrontational rhetoric emanating from the Turkish capital in recent times.
First, in a statement on May 9 to mark ‘Europe Day,’ Erdoğan walked back his previous threat; stating that membership of the European Union remained a strategic target ,and one that could be achieved on a “win-win” basis, before adding, “our wish is to carry our cooperation with the EU to the utmost level in fields such as migration, economy, energy, the customs union and membership negotiations.”
And the next day, Erdoğan’s demand that all chapters of Turkey’s accession process be opened was similarly revised, with Minister of European Affairs Ömer Çelik asking that just chapters 23 and 24 be considered, alongside a focus on migration issues, anti-terrorism co-operation, and the upgrading of the customs union
Thus, with Erdoğan’s earlier ultimatum appearing to be little more than the opening offer ahead of lengthy negotiations, the healthy margin of support for Macron’s pro-EU platform leaves EU negotiators in a more advantageous position than expected.
With unity between France and Germany strengthened, and popular support for Europe’s liberal values freshly secured, the EU can now present a united front in its condemnation of the Turkish government’s growing authoritarianism.
Macron on one side, Trump on the other
The renewal of a value-based EU foreign policy contrasts sharply with the priorities being set on the other side of the Atlantic, where the Trump administration has promised to put ‘America first’ on the global stage, regardless of the implications. But despite their stark differences, these two foreign policy focuses may actually complement each other as much as they conflict.
The West has long faced a difficulty in matching its geopolitical interests with its liberal values, and the gap between the two has allowed successive governments in Ankara to deflect criticism by levelling counter accusations of hypocrisy.
Turkey’s invaluable strategic position, first on frontline in the Cold War, and now as a crucial actor in both Syria and Iraq, means that despite a history of close relations, America has long struggled to consistently pressure its NATO ally on the issues of democracy and human rights
In contrast, the EU has traditionally been more successful in promoting democratic reforms through its political and economic ties with Turkey, a country whose economy remains highly dependent on the European market.
The divergent foreign policies of the US and the EU, therefore, present a novel opportunity: separating western geopolitical strategy from western values. The EU can focus on pressuring Turkey to adopt its liberal democratic values, while the US can be left to focus on working with Turkey purely on the basis of ruthless geopolitical interests.
In this context, the return of a self-assured EU confidently promoting its values on the world stage could not have come at a more necessary moment. Between Macron’s Europe and Trump’s America, Turkey faces an unlikely, yet potentially formidable, combination.