April 11, 2017
To say that EU-Turkey relations are under strain is a strong understatement. Perhaps the only reason (NATO concerns aside) why EU member states have not officially put a stop to the accession negotiations is enlightened self-interest in the refugee deal.
Megaphone diplomacy and diplomatic tactics at or over the far end of the spectrum of appropriateness and legality have colored the debate. Narratives of Europeanization and Neo-Ottomanism appear to be most pronounced in their frictions with the heat of a referendum on constitutional reform in Turkey under the wings.
The figures frequently reiterated by European actors about the Turkish policy response after the coup attempt of 15 July 2016 stand in stark contrast with Turkish self-legitimization in the name of stability and justice.
The Turkish opinion (the opinion of Turkish citizens) is rarely heard in depth in Europe and vice versa. In the European Parliament, Turkish newspapers have become increasingly scarce. Positions harden.
Erdogan is proactive about legitimizing the consolidation of his position through his referendum. His campaign rhetorics fit with the narrative of neo-Ottomanism.
The EU continues to emphasize the disproportionality of the actions by the Turkish state in face of the failed coup of 2016. EU leaders also echo the view of the Venice Commission that the proposed constitutional reforms in Turkey are more than undesirable.
Interestingly some in the West argue that referendums are an instrument that runs counter to the legitimate interest of the state to safeguard stability and continuity. Interesting, because the referendum in Turkey would (despite the facts pointing a different direction) be seen by many as a means to give more stability to the economic development and political unity of Turkey.
Sara Stefanini (Politico) even argued that the Cyprus question might benefit from a stronger Turkish president. One could arguably project that an effective agreement on Cyprus would lead to stronger EU-Turkey economic cooperation, for example in the field of energy policy. Energy integration would create more EU leverage to steer towards enlargement objectives, yet also increased dependence. Needless to point out that the European political sentiment would remain against the proposed constitutional reforms for such hypothetical economic benefits. Perhaps the above point on referendums needs further qualification. The approach below offers a midway alternative.
Principled pragmatism (as coined by Steven Blockmans for CEPS) seems to weigh heavily in the discussion, yet very little movement (the refugee facility apart) is shown beyond the political level. There are no known legal cases filed in the recent Dutch Turkish diplomatic spat. Accession talks, while not progressing very much, are not officially frozen. However there is support in both the Commission and the Council though to increase funding for civil society under the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA). This would arguably feed into the broader push for more democracy, rule of law and the strengthening of human rights. Civil society actors that support these causes could make their voices heard more loudly.
If one looks at what has been done so far in the field of support for civil society in Turkey, the record is not brilliant. There is no clear political consensus. As a result there are not a lot of initiatives that would appear to cause collision with the Turkish state. Another consequence of political division is a huge backlog in implementation. The implementation is conducted through indirect management, i.e. with the direct collaboration of the Turkish state administration. EU funded IPA evaluation experts admit that indirect management might be a problem. They concluded that there is no clear support by reliable data on cost-effectiveness for this management mode. Strangely enough the experts still argue against moving towards direct management (i.e. implementation through EU actors) for reasons of financial and administrative cost. How do they know if there is no proper benchmark?
Thus, if the EU wants to do something additional to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Turkey through the strengthening of civil society, it could well make it clear to the Turkish government that being principled about these matters means there will be no waiting anymore for collaboration by the state and that it will thus place the implementation of IPA I backlog and IPA II under direct management. But let me first stall my holidays to Turkey for a while, though hopefully not until 2029…