Turkey, the European Union and Alternative Futures After Brexit

Turkey, the European Union and Alternative Futures After Brexit

Meltem Muftuler-Bac

Of the candidates negotiating for accession to the European Union, Turkey presents the most visible challenge. It has the longest standing association and candidacy, and while it began its accession negotiations in 2005, it still has not completed the talks for a variety of reasons. In addition, its political system is undergoing significant transformation. On July 15, 2016, Turkey was confronted with an unexpected attempt at a military take-over. Though this was quickly averted, it changed the external and internal political landscape for the country. A direct casualty of the military take-over attempt was Turkey’s relations with the EU. While these relations have always been uneasy, in the immediate aftermath of the military coup attempt, they reached a stalemate. It has become increasingly difficult to appraise the future of this problematic relationship.

At the same time, the European Union faced its own challenges with the 2016 British referendum to leave the EU. These two countries – Turkey and the UK – could end up with similar levels of integration with the EU, but without membership. Since Turkey’s accession has become almost impossible in the current political climate with Commission President Jean Claude Juncker declaring in September 2017, ‘Rule of law, justice and fundamental values have top priority [in the accession process] and that rules out EU membership for Turkey in the foreseeable future’, Brexit was seen as a blessing in disguise for Turkey.

Brexit influences Turkey’s views towards the EU as well as its own future as part and parcel of this bloc. First, it demonstrated that the EU is not necessarily an attractive project to which all European countries want to belong, and once in, that they would never want to leave. In other words, Brexit created doubts about the attractiveness of the EU as a foreign policy strategic goal. Second, it created the possibility that alternative forms of integration and/or association other than full membership with the EU are possible. If one of the largest three members of the EU no longer feels obliged to be part of the Union, it could provide a new opportunity for countries such as Turkey, notably in terms of economic interdependence. This also presents an attractive alternative, as it indicates the possibility of taking the best parts of membership – material gains through economic integration – without having to fulfill the political criteria of membership or taking upon duties and obligations arising from membership.

To turn to these different implications of Brexit for Turkey, it has always had friendly relations with the United Kingdom, one of Turkey’s key supporters. It was the British government and the former Prime Minister Tony Blair who pushed for a pre-accession strategy for Turkey in 1998, candidacy in 1999, and opening of accession negotiations in 2005. When some EU member states openly opposed Turkey’s accession prospects, the British government always stressed Turkey’s importance for European security, and supported Turkey’s accession for material reasons. British exit from the EU has meant losing a mentor for Turkey inside the EU.

However, it was shocking to witness the Leave campaigners in the UK portraying Turkish accession as a liability, and using Turkish membership in the EU as a nightmare scenario against which the British people need to rally. Even though Turkey’s accession was in no way possible in 2016, the British ‘Leavers’ presented this as a done deal, with millions of Turks ready to flood into the British lands. From a Turkish point of view, this came as an unpleasant surprise for the Turkish government, which traditionally found a natural ally in its relations with the EU, and the Turkish public who saw themselves portrayed in the British media as a bogeyman. Turks would have expected this behavior from other EU members such as Austria who always opposed Turkey’s accession, but not from the United Kingdom, a perceived friend and supporter of Turkey inside the EU. Thus, the Brexit campaign, which portrayed Turkish people flooding into Britain as a major cost of the British membership in the EU – even though Turkey’s membership was most probably decades away – harmed the British government’s credibility in Turkish eyes, but also highlighted the extent to which Turkey’s people could be vilified for political ends.

Brexit also strengthened the position of those in Turkey who have been claiming that Turkey’s future is not with the European Union. Turkey was already frustrated over the length of time it spent negotiating for EU accession, with the prospect of membership still elusive. The British decision to leave the EU provided Turkey with further proof that the EU is no longer the powerhouse it once was in the 1990s, and that it was disintegrating already. It led to questions with regards to the feasibility of keeping Turkish accession to the EU as a foreign policy goal. Why try to join a Union when other members are trying to leave the bloc? Brexit was seen as an indication of the decline in the European Union, such that none of the economic benefits of the former decades could be expected to materialize for Turkey even if and when it accedes to the EU. This led to a sharp decline in the EU’s attractiveness as well as Turkish readiness to adapt costly political rules.

Unexpectedly, it opened up new avenues for Turkey’s future relations with European countries. When the British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Turkey in 2016 and met the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it was seen as a meeting between two equal, European states who might engage in cooperation with each other without the EU framework. It also demonstrated that other forms of relations with the EU are possible that do not necessarily involve full membership. Turkey was already facing significant problems in meeting the EU’s political criteria, the negotiations were stalled with multiple multilateral and bilateral vetoes, and accession seems no longer possible. However, Brexit created new hope in Turkey that maybe accession is not necessarily desirable or necessary for integration into different EU policies.

This is why it was seen as a blessing in disguise. Turkey is already facing significant opposition to its accession with German Chancellor Angela Merkel stating in 2017, “There cannot be a Turkish accession to the EU”. The European Parliament already put this position forward when it voted to suspend negotiations in November 2016, and again in its resolution of July 6 2017. Yet, the Central and Eastern European member states, the Baltic states and the Mediterranean members do not support freezing or suspending negotiations with Turkey. It is the uncertainty over what kind of relations would emerge with Turkey in the case of such a suspension that seems to motivate the EU member states. Finland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Timo Soini argued, “We know that there are problems in Turkey when it comes to human rights… but I am not in favor of stopping negotiations, and the only way to work out the problems is through dialogue with Ankara”. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius echoed that same sentiment: “By stopping, we will not make a good thing because we will encourage them even more to go away. I think the effect would be the opposite than what we’d wish.” The French President Emmanuel Macron stated his wish to avoid a rupture because “Turkey is an essential partner in many crises we jointly face, specifically the migration challenge and the terrorist threat.” Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s Minister of Foreign affairs, agreed as: “good relations with Ankara were essential for upholding the refugee deal. Whoever attacks the stability of Turkey would attack the security of Europe, because currently Turkey is the one to halt the migratory flow to Europe”. Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser made it clear that “come what may, Turkey would remain a crucial EU partner across a variety of policy fields.”

This seems to be precisely the path open for Turkey’s future with the EU. While the accession process is dormant, alternative forms of integrating Turkey into the EU’s multiple policy areas might be possible. Brexit would shed light onto that path of differentiated integration, with the negotiations highlighting alternative ways of integration into the EU for countries such as Turkey without severing all their ties. Since Turkey’s future with the European Union is increasingly shaped by its own internal political troubles and its accession is unlikely for the near future, this might be the route forward. In short, Brexit matters for Turkey because, while it lessened the attractiveness of the EU and led to the loss of an ally inside the EU, it nonetheless demonstrated that there might be alternatives to membership.


Meltem Muftuler-Bac is Professor of International Relations and Jean Monnet Chair Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey. Her research mainly focuses on Turkey’s relations with the European Union, international relations theory, European integration. Follow on Researchgate and Twitter.