By Ben Marchman
On a visit to Ankara, Turkey this weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel proposed the hastening of Turkish accession into the EU in return for Ankara’s help stemming the flood of refugees into Europe. Since 2005, Turkey has been in negotiation with the EU over its proposed membership. However, opposition still exists in the EU, and many point to Turkish abuses of human rights and their conflict with Cyprus (a full EU member) as important deterrents to Turkish entrance into the EU. Now, with the overwhelming flood of Syrian refugees banging at the door of Europe, these former sticking points seem to have disappeared in favor of political expediency. In order to understand the arguments for and against the acceptance of Turkey into the EU, we must understand the process thus far.
Turkey did not begin maneuvering towards European Union membership in 2005, but rather all the way back in 1997 when the EU Helsinki Council officially confirmed Turkey’s candidacy to become a full EU member state. In 2005, after eight years of talks, a framework was created that would allow for the eventual accession of Turkey, but problems arose almost immediately. Various countries including Cyprus, a longstanding rival following a 1974 coup d’etat, blocked certain benchmarks Turkey had to meet. Additionally, Ankara has seen opposition from the conservative Merkel, who has long opposed full membership in favor of a “privileged partnership.” These countries and others in the EU have long pointed to human rights abuses in Turkey and continued political conflict with Cyprus as detriments to EU member status for Turkey. However, even those western countries which have opposed Turkish entrance into the European Union cannot deny its important role as a political force in the Middle East.
The rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis, and now the entrance of Russia into the fray of the Syrian Civil War, have given Turkey a chance to more fully step into the role of regional power broker for the West. Even Merkel’s long-held opposition to EU membership for Turkey has seemingly crumbled in the wake of huge numbers of Syrian refugees and the threat of ISIS. Merkel’s capitulation to Ankara reveals an uncomfortable reality: that Turkey is too important of a potential partner to let it fall through the cracks. Turkey has been providing an important staging area for Western forces to engage with ISIS in Syria, and recently has taken in over two million Syrian refugees from the Civil War. The reality is dialogue and cooperation with Turkey are necessary in order to mitigate the destabilizing effects of the Syrian Civil War. This is a harsh reality that European leaders like Merkel seem to be embracing as the EU mulls over a deal to give Ankara 3 billion euros in refugee assistance. Letting Turkey into the EU seems to be less about ethics and more about the harsh political reality of our world.
Merkel’s attempt to bribe the Turkish government with political favors for help in stemming the flow of refugees feels more like shady political maneuvering than grand diplomacy. The problem with Turkish membership in the EU is whether it is better to let ethics and principles stand or to give into the incessant drumbeat of political reality. Is Merkel forgetting that Turkey has long suppressed political dissent and media coverage? A large-scale demonstration following plans to demolish a park in Istanbul was filled with rampant violence and police brutality, and ended in the death of two individuals, according to a report by Amnesty International. Mind you, Merkel labeled Turkish reaction to the protests as not in line with EU ideals of free speech. In addition, Turkish refusal to acknowledge Cypriot shipping and trade would make being part of an open customs union impossible. This is a point Merkel has pushed Ankara on as late as 2013, when she indicated Turkey would need to reform in order to fulfill EU requirements. It seems strange then that these very real problems with EU membership seem to be quickly subsumed under political considerations, especially coming from Merkel. If the European Union is to become a stronger union, then it will need to be allied with Turkey, but if it is to become a union built on protection of human rights and openness then Turkey must change. When the question is whether the EU should give up foundational principles in order to solve the latest world crisis and pass the baton to others, principles should always win.