Reviving Turkey's EU accession process seems problematic

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week visited Brussels and met with two top EU officials, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council and Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission. The primary purpose of the visit was to discuss the accelerated payment of the remaining part of funds to be paid by the EU, but he also raised four other issues.

One of them was a subject that had already been agreed in a meeting held on March 18, 2016, in which 3 billion euros were promised to Turkey for Syrian refugees. Together with another 3 billion donated later, this amount rose to 6 billion euros. Turkey has so far received 4.7 billion euros of this sum and there was a remaining balance of 1.3 billion euros.

However, this payment was subject to a condition: All irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greek islands from March 20, 2016 were to be returned to Turkey. For every Syrian returned, another Syrian was to be received by the EU.

It is unclear whether this commitment still holds now that Turkey has decided to open its doors for refugees wishing to go to the EU countries.

Erdogan also raised with the EU officials the question of an additional fund of an unspecified amount to be paid by the EU to Turkey because of the Idlib refugees. Turkey considers these refugees, who have fled from Syrian government violence to the northwest Syrian province, as a new phenomenon that has to be tackled separately.

The EU has not yet responded to this new request. EU bureaucracy is too slow on both political and budgetary mechanisms, so the answer may not come as quickly as Turkey expects, and Turkey’s decision to unleash the refugees to the Greek border may push the Greek authorities and some EU countries to further delay the EU’s answer on additional funds. So, the fate of this request remains uncertain.

The second question that Erdoğan raised with the EU officials was the liberalisation of the visa formalities for Turks wishing to visit EU countries. The EU had promised on March 18 2016 to accelerate the visa liberalisation roadmap “with a view to lifting the visa requirement at least by the end of June 2016,” but this promise was tied to the fulfilment by Turkey of all EU benchmarks on the subject.

Ankara has already fulfilled 66 of the 72 criteria to be fulfilled for the visa liberalisation. The six remaining benchmarks included the definition of terror in the Turkish penal code; agreement on the protection of personal data; cooperation on penal and legal matters; fighting corruption, and an agreement for the re-admission to Turkey of refugees who do not qualify to enter EU countries.

Turkey has difficulties in almost all of these remaining six criteria, but the most important one is the definition of terror in the Turkish legislation. The EU ‘acquis communautaire’ does not consider as terror any act that does not involve violence, whereas the Turkish penal code considers as an act of terror even a non-violent expression of opinion. Turkish authorities say that, given the threat of terror that menaces Turkey’s survival, it is not possible to adopt the EU criteria at this stage. So, the issue seems to have become bogged down.

 The third issue that Erdoğan raised with the EU officials was the updating of Turkey’s customs union agreement with the EU. This was another issue that was debated on March 18, 2016. The two sides had welcomed, at that date, “the ongoing work on the upgrading of the customs’ union”. But it is still being kept in the deep-freeze, and the EU has not given any explanation on why no action has been taken so far.

The last issue that Erdoğan raised with the EU officials was the revival of Turkey’s accession process to the EU, but the EU officials remained unmoved, probably because of Turkey’s poor record in the fields of democracy, human rights and fundamental rights and freedoms.

Erdoğan’s visit was timely, especially after Turkey decided to open its doors to the refugees. Some EU countries may also take action to cater for Turkey’s request, but a general thaw in Turkey-EU relations is not within sight.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.