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