So Now Erdoğan Cares About Europe Again?

Turkish membership doesn’t seem likely so why is Erdoğan raising the stakes?

Prime Ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey address a press conference in Ankara, November 6
Prime Ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey address a news conference in Ankara, November 6 (Rijksoverheid)

Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan practically demanded on Wednesday that the European Union make his country a member state by 2023. It is difficult to imagine that the Turkish leader expects membership in such a short-term, if at all, so why raise the stakes?

In Berlin for a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdoğan warned that if Turkey isn’t admitted, Europe risks “losing” it.

European Union membership in 2023, when the Turks mark the centennial of their republic, is part of the Erdoğan government’s “2023 vision” as formulated by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu two years ago.

Yet under Davutoğlu’s direction, Turkey has moved away from Europe in recent years, emerging as a pivotal regional actor in its own right. It entered free-trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia and set up a free-trade zone with neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Turkey positioned itself as a regional mediator, even negotiating a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran. Europe, it seemed, had taken a backseat in the minds of Turkish foreign policymakers.

Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” strategy no longer seems viable in the face of mounting tension with Iraq and especially Syria. Erdoğan has antagonized his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki by deepening trade relations with his country’s Kurds while his calls on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to reform fell on deaf ears. Turkey now supports the largely Sunni opposition against Assad, giving its foreign policy a more sectarian than neutral flavor.

This may explain Erdoğan’s newfound appreciation of European Union membership but is unlikely to. Turkey may not rise to be the Middle East’s troubleshooter after all but can still claim the leadership of the Sunni world. If it were part of Europe, that would be far more difficult to achieve.

Turkey’s main interest in membership is commercial. The free flow of people, goods and services across the border would be a tremendous boon to its economy. But the same can be achieved with a free-trade association similar to Norway’s. Moreover, Turkey is already on track to enter a customs union with Europe.

Meanwhile, with the exception of the United Kingdom, no Western European member state is in favor of admitting Turkey. Erdoğan must realize that his ultimatum will do nothing to change that.

Turkey currently complies with just one of the 33 chapters in the negotiating process. On matters ranging from environmental protection to food safety to public procurement, it has yet to align with European law. Even if it complies with all of the terms, existing member states must agree unanimously to grant Turkey membership. Cyprus, for one, will likely block such an ascension given its sovereignty dispute with the Turk Cypriots in the north of the island who are recognized as an independent state by Ankara alone.

Indeed, Erdoğan probably realizes that Turkey will not be a member state in his lifetime and may be starting to give himself and his party some political cover for when that becomes obvious. The opposition, which already has strong doubts about the ruling Islamist party’s commitment to Turkish secularism, could blame the Erdoğan government and its supposed Islamification of the country if it drifts farther from Europe. The prime minister appears to be laying the groundworks for ultimately blaming European intransigence instead.

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