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Beyond False Narratives: European Union's External Relations and Turkey

UrsulaErdo
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The European Union was humiliated by Moscow in early February 2021. As the bloc's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, was visiting the Russian capital, his hosts expelled three European diplomats, described the EU as an unreliable partner and dismissed all accusations of abuse and human rights breaching in the cases of Alexei Navalny and the peaceful protests of opposition militants.

Two months later, in Ankara, European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, was humiliated with the unfortunate complicity of the European Council president, Charles Michel. The Turkish hosts welcomed the high-ranked visitors with only two chairs, one of which was reserved for the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In a gesture that may cost him whatever is left of his political career, Michel failed to react courteously and offer his chair to von der Leyen. She was eventually seated on a sofa, in an inferior position.

Both Moscow and Ankara often revile the EU for acting like, or as if it was guided by Washington, describing it as an actor with little if any influence in global affairs. Such discourse resonates with certain critical voices in Europe and, in general, in the Western camp. Indeed, one of the mantras in some political and media circles over the last decades is that the bloc does not have a foreign policy and it is weak in its external relations. In my opinion, this is a rather erroneous judgement.

EU's External Relations: it's all about trade and the common market's prosperity

Indeed, on the one hand, the EU does not "have" a foreign policy in the sense in which such policies are conceived and implemented by countries around the world. Before anything, it does not "have" a national identity around which to construct a discourse of national interests and a policy to meet those interests, especially in the security fields. It is therefore natural that the national interests of the member states hinder the emergence of a common foreign and security policy, which remains subject to unanimity decisions under the second pillar of the EU structure, as constituted with the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht. On the other hand, however, attempting to find similarities between the EU's external relations and national foreign policies is actually misleading and generative of false narratives, like the ones exemplified above.

From the outset, the European Communities were built around the common market, and to this day this stands at the very core of European policies and European power. Simply put, it all boils down to money: Europe is rich and can enrich others. Countries and companies want to do business with Europe and in Europe, and they want to attract European money and European investments. This is the source of power for Europe and, in particular, for the European Commission.  And that is also why EU institutions are said to use civilian means to civilian (not military) ends, i.e. what François Duchêne called "civilian power Europe" back in the 1970s. In 2002, after decades of exercising this form of power, Ian Manners described the achievements with the phrase "normative power Europe". This pointed at Union's capacity to impose its norms to foreign partners in a variety of fields, ranging from trade to human rights and from democratic standards to environmental and humanitarian aid policies.

Building on the market and prosperity-oriented logic, much of EU’s external relations have, at their core, various types of so-called Euro-agreements, which structure the Union's regional and global reach under coordination from the European Commission.

The first are Association Agreements employed in practice as pre-accession treaties that offer membership provided that candidates meet detailed conditions (the Copenhagen criteria after 1993). Once this conditionality is met, accession processes are concluded with accession treaties. To this must be added the Customs Union with Turkey, initiated with the 1963 Ankara Agreement and officially inaugurated in 1995.

The next category is represented by the European Economic Area (EEA) agreements. They expand certain aspects and rules of the Single Market, with the EU membership perspective also included, to Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein and, in a special format, to Switzerland. In the Western Balkans, Stabilisation and Association Agreements continue to regulate the selective and conditional participation of partners in the Single Market, with the perspective of EU membership also alive.

Then there are association agreements with no EU membership perspective. They include those that offer selective and conditional participation on the Single Market to all its geographical neighbours through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The ENP has been operational since 2004 and was upgraded several times with reference to the Copenhagen criteria as partially conditioning the enhancement of relations.

To the above must be added various types of preferential, or free trade agreements that allow selectively and conditionally for circulations of goods, services, capitals and people between the Single Market and specific partners. The map bellow illustrating this scheme suggests a very complex projection of EU's trade power and conditionality across the globe. Sooner or later, competitors end up being involved in the EU scheme, in various ways and to various degrees, under the rules issued by the European Commission in collaboration with the EU Member States (the Council of Ministers) and the European Parliament.

  

Source: European Commission, DG Trade Management Plan 2019, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2016/august/tradoc_154920.pdf     

The real force of the EU in its external relations thus originates from decisions under the first pillar policies regarding the Single Market, hence in the initiatives of the European Commission, and not in the second pillar policies, where the unanimous decision of all Member States is required. As such, the Union represents nowadays a post-Westphalian, unprecedented type of actor with an important influence at the global level. It is an unrivalled economic and trade bloc, a global leader in the environmental policy, and the only global power with an articulated, long-term enlargement and neighbourhood policy shaping its region. It is also a global leader in development and humanitarian aid policies.

The world’s regulatory superpower

The EU's representation in international bodies under the United Nations' aegis is instrumental in this context. It is itself a full member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It also holds observer status at the UN's General Assembly, in the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas and the International Maritime Organisation, in the UN Environment Programme, and at the World Bank. The EU also participates in the Environmental Policy Committee at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Additionally, the Union participates in conferences and deliberations of the UN’s Economic and Social Committee and Specialised Agencies.

It must be noted that all 27 EU member states are influential, in various ways and to various degrees, in all forms of international cooperation under the broad UN umbrella and, almost always, in coordination with the EU's international commitments. At the WTO, for instance, the Union's influence is particularly significant since 1995 when it became full member along the 27 Member States. That means a total of 28 votes and opinions on world trade, most often in consonance, coming from Europe. Nowadays, many agree that the EU, as global leader in the trade in goods, has become "the world's regulatory superpower" that imposes its standards on a broad range of products and networks.

The real power of the EU thus builds on its status as the most important market in the world, with over 500 million consumers (in 2019) and an aggregate GDP, before the COVID-19 crisis, of around 17 trillion EURO, which was comparable to the US figure. It boasts the biggest share of world trade where the more than 10.000 separate tariff lines and the corpus of Community trade rules strengthen the Union's global influence. Taking into account high levels of producer and consumer education, by comparison with rivals, the EU is competitive at the global level and has managed to raise living standards. Thus, its GDP based on purchasing power parity is similar to that of the US and China, and much above Japan and India.

The EU also has a monitoring mechanism similar to and, in many ways, more sophisticated than international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It does not actually need a so-called "secret service" of intelligence like those of the nation-states US, Russia, or China. The technical intelligence the EU is interested in is always available in sources more or less open. Intelligence processing quality is high because the quality of EU experts is also high in various fields, especially in the fundamental fields of political and economic sciences, including international law and finance.

All the above make the Union a global actor, capable of promoting free-trade much more effectively than certain nation-states under the WTO rules and, even more, capable of imposing its own rules. And this is the actor whose representatives authoritarian regimes in, for instance, Russia or Turkey, think they can intimidate. Eventually, the problem may not be with the EU's conception and implementation of its external relations, which is a highly sophisticated and advanced affair. The problem may be with the very quality of its current representatives, who fail to rise at the expectations of more experienced EU politicians, experts and, last but not the least, EU citizens.

Turkey in the current context of EU's external relations

The aspects described above serve as framework for tackling another false narrative, which is about the EU's apparent inconsistence and even inefficiency in relation with Turkey. This, again, is a rather erroneous judgement.

After Turkey applied for membership in the European Economic Community in 1959, Brussels responded with the offer of a staged process toward the establishment of a customs union. The proposal was encoded in the so-called Ankara Agreement, signed and ratified by the two sides in 1963. Subsequent relations were nevertheless marred by military coups and successive episodes of democratic backsliding in Turkey and by the Turkish invasion and ongoing occupation of north Cyprus.

To better understand Turkey-EU relations, one must start, yet again, from the fact that the Union represents a Single Market first and foremost. This is constituted on the basis of the freedom of circulation for goods, services, capital and people. The cornerstone of this construction is the competition policy, with more than 155.000 rules currently regulating the four freedoms above.

Before implementing them as EU Member States, candidate countries must also pass through the accession process and meet the "Copenhagen criteria". These are as follows: democratic governance and the rule of law; respect for and protection of human and minority rights; a functioning market economy; and accepting and implementing the treaty-based obligations derived from EU membership.

All these are designed to protect the functioning of the Single Market and Europe itself from instability historically associated with authoritarian rule and inter-ethnic conflicts, protectionist policies advanced by nationalist-populist governments, or corruption and authoritarian arbitrariness in the absence of rule of law. By promoting the "values" encoded in the Single Market rules and membership criteria, the EU has managed to leave behind authoritarian and totalitarian state nationalisms that led in the past to world wars and destroyed much of the continent. The happy outcome is more than six decades of continental peace now.

Turkey has never managed to meet the criteria briefly indicated above even after the official institutionalisation of the Customs Union in 1995 and the official debut of accession negotiations in 2005. On the contrary, it has remained a statist polity governed monopolistically through nationalist-protectionist policies.

After 2010, the reforms undertaken between 2001 and 2009 were eventually reversed and the Erdoğan-AKP regime resorted to an authoritarian logic of government. Through successive constitutional amendments between 2010 and 2018, it has reduced the independence of the judiciary in Turkey to an empty concept and minimised the authority of the legislative by subordinating it to that of the President of the Republic, together with the executive power. Any critical voice is crushed with an iron fist and freedom of expression, never ever a dear of Turkish statesmen, is now practically a distant dream. Moreover, Turkey under the current leadership is braced for confrontations, even military conflict, with almost all its neighbours. This runs fundamentally against the EU's raison d'etre as a civilian power seeking peace and prosperity, not conflict.

On a more technical note, allowing Ankara access to EU membership, with its four freedoms of circulation, would currently mean opening doors to numerous undesirable imports from Turkey. Among them are state-controlled monopolies, a national currency politically controlled, and potentially high numbers of Turkish political refugees. To these must be added capitals, products, services and people with dubious origins since actual governance in Turkey is of poor quality. These are risks nobody in the EU wants to take responsibility for.

A paper candidate

Most experts thus agree that Turkey is now a candidate to EU membership on paper only. Both Ankara and Brussels talk at the moment more about updating the Customs Union and a "special relation", and less about the accession process. This transactional turn of relations was confirmed when the European Parliament passed a resolution calling officially for the suspension of the enlargement process with Turkey in 2019. Turkish officials responded by describing the resolution as "meaningless", thus making a return to reforms and accession negotiations very difficult, to say the least.

After the Erdoğan-AKP regime has done all it could to undermine the country's EU membership prospects, that "carrot" is now off the table. This is how one should interpret Ursula von der Leyen declaring in Ankara, on April 6, that human rights are "not negotiable". Human rights are a matter relevant for the accession process, which is not open anymore for Turkey.

As announced by the European Council in October 2020 and reiterated clearly by the EU leaders at Erdoğan's presidential White Palace, the most Turkey can hope for now is the modernisation of the Customs Union and more funds to deal with refugees from war-torn Syria. This is also, nevertheless, conditional upon Ankara refraining from offensive actions and, even more, contributing to peace and stability in the broader Eastern Mediterranean region. Even updating the Customs Union is a distant target at the moment. It is conditioned upon Turkey adopting major reforms in its political system and in the management of economic and financial policies, which are now totally dominated by the Presidential office.

In other words, there is no more room for negotiations of any kind. Ankara either complies with the Union's terms, or not, in which case all promised benefits are off the table. If Turkey complies, it gains nothing more than what was anyway promised with the refugee deal back in 2016, additional funds as stipulated in the latest arrangement, and the possible (but still conditional) modernisation of the Customs Union. In this case, the EU gains what it always needs: time to stabilise a region crucial for its projection of influence, particularly as a common market, in the neighbourhood and beyond. If Turkey does not comply and reform, funds for dealing with the refugees may still come, but the Customs Union remains unchanged and regional developments will unfold with Turkey increasingly sidelined, as an unreliable and aggressive actor. So, it can be said that the Union actually retains the upper hand.

Any evolution in relations depends on Erdoğan now. He will be the only one to decide whether his country remains connected to the most important market for the Turkish imports and exports, or it is relegated to the farther circles of EU's external relations scheme. There, probably in the ENP zone, a "special partnership" is always prepared institutionally and waiting, which is something the British politicians chose to ignore some years ago. They started realising only after the conclusion of the Brexit process that that sort of "special" relation with the EU is rather undesirable. It is simply a second-class partnership of even more limited and conditional access to the most important common market in the world, with no access to the Union's globally influential decision-making institutions.

Sanctions can only be counterproductive: Ankara has already been punished

There are people outside and especially inside Turkey that are unhappy with the EU's current approach to the regime in Ankara. They accuse Brussels of closing its eyes to the serious human rights abuses, corruption and lawlessness in the country. And they, including here important INGOs, have expected harsh sanctions against the Erdoğan-AKP regime for years. As one Turkish observer noted, the deliberate humiliation suffered by the President of the European Commission in Ankara is equalled by the deliberate humiliation that the EU representatives' visit means for "at least half of the population of Turkey suffering under the iron fist of their host". However, Ankara has already been punished with the suspension of accession negotiations. The massive pro-government domestic media is rather delusional when describing the April 6 meeting as "positive" (Tr. olumlu), or when citing the chief presidential adviser's declaration that Turkey's ultimate aim remains full EU membership. Based on my analytical reading of EU-Turkey relations over the past twenty years, I think the train of EU membership for Ankara has long left the station. Sanctions, however, would raise the stakes and tensions to unnecessary and probably dangerous levels.

Turkey is a country where nationalist tropes have dominated the public education curricula, public arts, the media and politics for generations, often in anti-Western keynote. Any harsh measure from Europe against the country and/or its jingoistic leadership can only help the current regime rally fanatical support for rather irrational goals, as unfortunate examples in the past have demonstrated. And the possibility of such course is increased by the real problems that Turkey and its government are facing.

Over the last two years, the popularity of the presidential system and that of the current regime has constantly declined, mainly due to the poor management of the economy, finance and the COVID-19 crisis. Foreign policy moves also seem to have had a significant contribution. The adventurous actions in North Syria and Libya only brought high financial and human costs, and worsening relations with traditional partners, with palpably negative effects for the economy. And that was not the only self-inflicted wound.

The acquisition of the S-400 missile systems from Russia, too, eventually pushed Turkey to fall in its own trap. The new Biden administration in Washington has punished Turkish officials from the defence industry with sanctions and warned repeatedly that the normalisation of US-Turkish relations depends on the Turkish side renouncing the S-400s. However, although access to Western markets and capital is crucial for its economic survival, Ankara has yet to follow suit.

In the meantime, the regime continues to promote mega-projects, all initiated as public-private partnerships. Money comes more and more from China, Russia and other, non-Western sources, with risks that I shall elaborate upon in my next contributions to Veridica. The real problem, for this country, is that it now moves away, regardless of cardinal points, from the structures and logic of development that sustained its sovereign existence for almost a century.


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  • The EU does not "have" a foreign policy in the sense in which such policies are conceived and implemented by countries around the world. Before anything, it does not "have" a national identity around which to construct a discourse of national interests and a policy to meet those interests, especially in the security fields. It is therefore natural that the national interests of the member states hinder the emergence of a common foreign and security policy, which remains subject to unanimity decisions under the second pillar of the EU structure, as constituted with the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht. On the other hand, however, attempting to find similarities between the EU's external relations and national foreign policies is actually misleading and generative of false narratives
  • The real power of the EU builds on its status as the most important market in the world, with over 500 million consumers (in 2019) and an aggregate GDP, before the COVID-19 crisis, of around 17 trillion EURO, which was comparable to the US figure. It boasts the biggest share of world trade where the more than 10.000 separate tariff lines and the corpus of Community trade rules strengthen the Union's global influence. Taking into account high levels of producer and consumer education, by comparison with rivals, the EU is competitive at the global level and has managed to raise living standards.
  • To better understand Turkey-EU relations, one must start, yet again, from the fact that the Union represents a Single Market first and foremost. This is constituted on the basis of the freedom of circulation for goods, services, capital and people. The cornerstone of this construction is the competition policy, with more than 155.000 rules currently regulating the four freedoms above. Before implementing them as EU Member States, candidate countries must also pass through the accession process and meet the "Copenhagen criteria". These are as follows: democratic governance and the rule of law; respect for and protection of human and minority rights; a functioning market economy; and accepting and implementing the treaty-based obligations derived from EU membership.
  • Most experts thus agree that Turkey is now a candidate to EU membership on paper only. Both Ankara and Brussels talk at the moment more about updating the Customs Union and a "special relation", and less about the accession process. This transactional turn of relations was confirmed when the European Parliament passed a resolution calling officially for the suspension of the enlargement process with Turkey in 2019. Turkish officials responded by describing the resolution as "meaningless", thus making a return to reforms and accession negotiations very difficult, to say the least.
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