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If Erdogan Loses, Will Turkey Revive Its Bid For EU Membership?

An opposition victory in the elections would be good news for the currently disastrous relations between Ankara and the European Union. But the 27 EU members may not yet be ready to consider Turkey's integration into the EU.

Photo of former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Tayyip Erdogan at the European

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels 2015.

Vincent Collen

BRUSSELS — In the seat of the EU, and in other European capitals, leaders are eagerly awaiting the results of the Turkish presidential elections — hoping for a victory of the opposition.

Still, all remain cautious about the prospect of the end of the longtime reign of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Whether Erdogan retains power or the opposition wins, this will not radically change relations between Turkey and the European Union , at least initially," says Benjamin Couteau, a researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute.

A win for the opposition led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu would undoubtedly improve relations between Ankara and the EU, which have become atrocious since Erdogan's authoritarian turn.

Not dead yet

Officially, the coalition that wants to defeat the two-decade-long ruler is calling for the reopening of negotiations to enter the European Union, which started in 2005 and have been officially frozen since 2018. "Full membership in the European Union is our goal," reads the Kilicdaroglu-led program.

Most Turks no longer believe in it.

But this request was not put forward during the campaign. "Most Turks no longer believe in it," explains Couteau.

This actually suits the Europeans, who have no desire to reopen this sensitive issue. "No one considers that Turkey's membership should be put on the table again," says one French government source.

"For Europe, Turkey's membership in the European Union is not officially buried, but it is not on the agenda," adds a diplomatic adviser in another European capital. " Whoever wins , it is unlikely that we will get out of this ambiguity."

Kilicdaroglu has made a point of calling for a renegotiation of the customs union, which has linked the country to the EU since 1996, to be more favorable for Turkey. This objective will be less difficult to achieve, as long as the new government lowers tensions with the Old Continent on several fronts.

Bilateral relations with several member states are extremely tense: Greece and Cyprus (and, in turn, France , a strong ally of Athens), but also Sweden, which Turkey is still blocking from joining NATO .

Photo of Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a campaign event ahead of the 14 May general elections.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate from the Turkish opposition's six-party alliance.

Alp Eren Kaya/Depo/Zuma

A stronger Turkey

"We should not expect the tensions to disappear, of course, but we have the right to expect an improvement,” says the European diplomatic adviser. “We must at least try, it will be an opportunity to seize."

The EU will have to "intensify the dialogue" with Ankara and "seek to stabilize the new government" by helping it to resolve the country's serious economic problems, says Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

In this scenario, the European Union could consider renegotiating the customs union, easing visa restrictions for Turks, or including Turkey in eastern Mediterranean gas projects , says a minister from a Nordic country.

The context has changed.

But even if the opposition wins on Sunday, Europeans should not expect Turkey to behave as it did before the Erdogan era, warns Scazzieri, who notes that the country is both wealthier and stronger militarily and diplomatically than it was 20 years ago. "And the context has changed," the researcher adds, "with the West no longer as dominant as it was at the turn of the century."

In other words, EU membership may no longer be as important to Ankara, concludes Scazzieri: "A successful Turkey outside the European Union is much easier to imagine than it used to be."

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Turkey-Israel Relations? It's Complicated — But The Gaza War Is Different

Turkish President Erdogan has now called on the International Criminal Court to go after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for war crimes, as the clash between the two regional powers has reached a new low.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Elias Kassem

Since the arrival two decades ago of now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s relationship with Israel has been a mix of deep ideological conflict and cover-your-eyes realpolitik .

On the one hand, Erdogan has positioned himself as a kind of global spokesman for the Palestinian cause . His Justice and Development Party has long publicly and financially supported Hamas, which shares similar roots in the 20th-century Muslim Brotherhood movement.

And yet, since 2001 when Erdogan first came to power, trade between Turkey and Israel has multiplied from $1.41 to $8.9 billion in 2022. Moreover, both countries see major potential in transporting newly discovered Israeli natural gas to Europe, via Turkey.

The logic of shared interests clashes with the passions and posturing of high-stakes geopolitics. Diplomatic relations have been cut off, then restored, and since October 7, the countries’ respective ambassadors have been recalled, with accusations flying between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, over the past 48 hours, Turkish-Israeli relations may have hit an all-time low.

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