Turkey’s Confrontational Relationship with the European Union

March 20, 2017

Years ago, the political director of the ministry asked me to draft a “Turkish foreign policy” speech for the minister. I prepared a draft, he went over it and we took it to the minister who read it and was pleased. Some months later, we received a similar request from the private office. Again, I prepared a draft which was an updated version of the previous one and we took it to the minister. He read it and said “it’s fine but no different than the last one”. The political director, a good friend of the minister, laughed and said “because in foreign policy we don’t sing a different tune every day”.

Today, this no longer seems to be the case. Steadiness has ceased to be a trait of Turkish foreign policy. So, at the cost of sounding repetitive, I would say:

“Turkey’s traditional foreign policy, bitterly criticized by the present Government for having betrayed Turkey’s potential, stood on pillars. Our relations with the United States and the European Union constituted the first two. A third one was our relations with our neighbors and the region. Prominently among those was Russia. Since the world is in a constant process of transformation Turkey was searching for new pillars to add to the existing ones. Relations with China, India and other emerging powers offered new prospects.

“Turkish foreign policy’s success depends on every one of these pillars being strong. Had Turkey not been a member of NATO, maintained excellent relations with the US, started an accession process with the EU and enjoyed the trust of neighboring countries, we would have put ourselves in a corner. The EU accession process, in spite of all the difficulties, added a positive dimension to our regional role. Our relations with region were an asset for the EU. In other words, our foreign policy pillars do not constitute alternatives. On the contrary, together, they support the same structure…” (*)

The European Council held on December 16-17, 2004 in Brussels welcomed the decisive progress made by Turkey in its far-reaching reform process; expressed its confidence that Turkey will sustain that process of reform and agreed to the opening of accession negotiations on October 3, 2005. It also stated the following:

“The European Council The shared objective of the negotiations is accession.

“These negotiations are an open-ended process, the outcome of which cannot be guaranteed beforehand.

“While taking account of all Copenhagen criteria, if the candidate State is not in a position to assume in full all the obligations of membership it must be ensured that the candidate State concerned is fully anchored in the European structures through the strongest possible bond.”

This language had not been used before for other accession candidates. At the very outset, it left a bad taste. During the years that followed, the EU failed to embrace Turkey as a prospective member. Its general approach was characterized by high-handedness and lack of foresight. Opening of chapters were always linked to “progress” in the Cyprus issue. This attitude, coupled with Turkey’s moving away from democratic reform and sliding towards majoritarian autocracy led to the slow death of the accession process. In the face of ups and down of the accession process, the ruling Justice and Development Party had promised that if the EU were to continue raising obstacles to Turkey full membership they would turn the Copenhagen criteria into “Ankara criteria” and keep moving forward. Nobody even mentions the word criteria or the universal standards of democracy anymore; all we hear is local and national solutions.

Last Thursday, Hürriyet newspaper published an interview with former EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Günter Verheugen. Commenting on Turkey’s latest spat with the Netherlands he reportedly said:

 “It takes two to tango. Both sides should act with common sense and stop levelling accusations at one another. These would yield nothing. We should not lose sight of the reality that geography and history have irreversibly linked us.

 “(In response to the question “can the EU give up Turkey?”) I can also reverse the question: Can Turkey give up the EU? My response to both questions is no.”

Indeed, as Mr. Verheugen has put it, Europe and Turkey remain irreversibly linked to one another politically, economically and socially with millions of Turks living there and millions of Europeans visiting Turkey each year as tourists and this in itself is a good reason to engage in constructive, cool-minded dialogue, perhaps to redefine the parameters of our cooperation.


(*) Quo Vadis Turkey, February 3, 2015.








About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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