After a three-year hiatus, the EU will restart membership negotiations with Turkey on 5 November, but changing objectives make the chances of accession seem remote.
Turkey's dalliance with the EU has been stymied by Turkey-sceptic Europeans such as France and Germany, cultural differences, the perennial Cyprus conflict, territorial disagreements between Greece and Turkey and the sharp slowdown, if not regression, of reforms in the candidate country itself.
Turkish Europe Minister Egemen Bağış let the cat out of the bag and admitted in an interview with the Telegraph published on 21 September that Turkey will 'probably' never achieve the prized goal of EU membership. At best, he suggests, it 'will be at European standards, very closely aligned but not as a member'. Opinion polls indicate that the vast majority of Turkish citizens would agree with his assessment.
Meanwhile, Turkey's activist foray into the volatile Middle East has led to regional isolation. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has alienated most Arab states by siding with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt following the removal of former president Mohammed Morsi. He also refuses to reconcile with Israel despite a partial apology by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the deaths of Turkish citizens onboard the Mavi Marmara during the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. At the same time, he is in direct conflict with Iraq, Iran and Russia over his robust support of the Syrian opposition.
These developments have vindicated the opinion of pro-European Turks that Turkey has no viable alternative to Europe. As slow 'recessionary' economic growth becomes the new normal for Turkey, as hinted recently by the IMF, it needs Europe more than ever to stimulate structural reforms – such as modernising the education system – critical to future prosperity and stability. Europe still remains the primary source of technology, knowhow and inspiration for governance and institutional reforms. After all, Turkey has built, arguably, the most advanced economy in the Middle East by emulating, albeit imperfectly, European political, economic and social norms.
Yet, the likelihood of Europe guiding Turkey’s reform momentum looks distant without the credible prospect of accession. Moreover, Turkey is less likely to cooperate with Europe on major policy initiatives, such as energy security, and will, instead, foster bilateral relations with individual European countries, primarily France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Turkey now has quite modest ambitions for its relations with the EU. It simply wants to conclude a visa-free travel agreement with Europe and to participate in the EU-US negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These objectives are a far cry from the initial optimism and expectations that greeted the launch of the accession process over eight years ago.
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