The European Parliament last week adopted a resolution recommending the European Commission and Council suspend accession negotiations with Turkey. This does not mean that they will necessarily do so because a qualified majority is required in the European Council and that is not easy to attain. Therefore, this move has to be regarded more as a message to the Turkish government, voicing disapproval of its human rights record, rather than a genuine intention of suspending the talks with Ankara.
The resolution made a distinction between the Turkish government and the Turkish people and decided to recommend that EU funds be made available to members of civil society, such as human rights defenders, students and journalists, to promote and protect democratic values and principles.
Such a distinction may not have a practical effect because the Turkish government has means — either by taking legislative measures or by making life difficult for organizations — to prevent civil society groups from receiving such funds from a foreign source. In November last year, the Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organization financed by George Soros, had to cease its activities in Turkey because the authorities accused Soros of trying to divide and destroy nations. It may do the same for any Turkish non-governmental organizations that receive EU funds for purposes that the government does not like.
It is difficult to determine whether the European Parliament made its distinction for the sake of reaching the organizations that deserve financial support or to harm the image of the Turkish government.
There are few positive elements in the entire resolution. One of them pays lip service to Turkey by expressing gratitude for its efforts to grant refugees temporary protection. The resolution says that “Turkey has shown great hospitality by offering shelter to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.” Many EU countries fell short in their commitment for a large-scale resettlement of Syrian refugees.
Another positive move is the reference in the resolution to the updating and upgrading of the customs union agreement signed in 1995 by Turkey and the EU. The agreement has a unique feature of having been signed before Ankara joined the bloc. There are cases where some member countries postponed joining the customs union until after they had formally joined the EU because their industries could not compete with other EU countries without the protection of customs duties. As a result, Turkey was, at one stage, more integrated with the EU than some of its full members because its industries were more competitive.
There are two aspects of the customs union agreement that need important adjustments. One is a provision that causes trade diversion to Turkey’s detriment. This allows industrial commodities manufactured in third countries, with whom the EU has signed an agreement, to enter the Turkish market without paying customs duty, while goods manufactured in Turkey cannot enter the markets of these third countries without paying such charges as Ankara does not have a free trade agreement with them. It was not necessary for Turkey to sign such an agreement with the EU before joining; it did so because it was expecting that EU accession would soon materialize. Now, with the European Parliament’s recommendation to suspend the accession negotiations, it has become all the more uncertain whether Turkey will ever be able to join the union.
The other adjustment that has to be made in the customs union agreement is the incorporation of agricultural products. Turkey is a competitive country in agriculture because of its large territory and suitable climate. If MEPs voted in favor of upgrading the customs union, it is partly because they believe such a move would benefit the economy of their own country.
Visa liberalization is another thorny issue mentioned in the European Parliament’s resolution. The EU tied liberalization to the fulfillment of 72 criteria by Turkey. There remains only six unfulfilled criteria, but among them is one that pertains to the definition of terrorism in Turkish legislation, which is the most problematic. The EU says that an act that does not involve violence should not be considered an act of terror, while in Turkey, even if an academic signs a statement that criticizes an act of government, the Turkish legislation considers it an act of terror. Turkey says that, in a period where terrorism threatens national security, it cannot adopt a mild attitude in its fight against terror.
In light of the steady rise of extreme right movements in many EU member countries, Turkey is likely to face even further pressure from the EU, be it from the European Parliament or other EU institutions.