Whomever comes out top, Turkey is no longer a reliable NATO ally nor a serious EU candidate @AndersFoghR @StefanFuleEU
— Andrew Duff MEP (@Andrew_Duff_MEP) December 27, 2013
This raises a serious question: is it time for the European Union to end accession talks with Turkey? Though I've long supported the hope of Turkey joining the EU, I'm now convinced that the correct answer is "yes".
Before explaining why, perhaps a little review is in order.
The case for Turkish membership in the EU was always something of a long-shot. Geographically, Turkey is only tenuously a part of Europe. Culturally, the hang-ups about Turkey being a predominantly Muslim society that is as much (or more?) "Middle Eastern" than "European" couldn't be ignored. And even when things looked better around 2004-5, Turkey had (and continues to have) serious problems with its standard of democracy and rule of law. So the case for Turkish membership always seemed to depend on improving political conditions; the economic benefits of a young, large, and growing economy; and the symbolic benefits of a largely Muslim country joining.
What Europeans (Don't) Want
In spite of the arguments made in favor of Turkey joining, Europeans were never convinced. The following chart shows public opinion in the EU towards Turkish membership in 2008 (source: Eurobarometer). (Note: "Net support" shows the percentage in support of Turkish membership minus those opposed. A number below 0 means that more respondents in that country oppose than support Turkish membership).
The results speak for themselves. Europeans are against Turkey becoming an EU member on the whole (net opposition of over 20 percentage points), and overwhelmingly so in many countries (including in the two biggest, France and Germany). Support, where it exists, is tepid, except in Romania. (Note that the results omit responses of "not sure" and "don't know", so even where net support is positive, support is still usually below 50%).
This gets to a pretty important reason. Many in the EU complain of a "democratic deficit" in which EU leaders don't listen to what citizens actually want. Here is a good test of that: Europeans don't want Turkey in the EU, so what will EU leaders do?
The events of 2013, however, make the case for continuing Turkey's accession talks even more problematic. However one evaluates the whole of the Erdogan government's record on democratization, it is clear that 2013 has seen very visible demonstrations of brutal uses of power against protestors, evidence of high-level and massive corruption, and a willingness to undermine the rule of law in order to maintain power. How can the EU continue accession talks with a regime that is very clearly walking away from the Copenhagen Criteria?
One answer is that the EU needs to continue to "engage" the Erdogan regime to push it to make democratic reforms. This claim makes sense enough if the problem were simply that reforms had stalled, or perhaps if Erdogan were newly in power and needed a push to get started. But, instead, he has been in power for over a decade, and he has actively sought to weaken Turkish democracy in recent years.
The "engagement" argument also threatens a sort of circular logic. When Turkey makes positive changes, it should be rewarded with more engagement. When it fails to, this also shows a need for further engagement. So, is the answer always more engagement? Rather than inspiring Erdogan to push on with democratic reforms, I think it could easily be argued that "engagement" after the events of the past 6 months only serves to undermine the EU's credibility.
What to Do?
It seems difficult to make any sort of case for continuing accession talks with Turkey at this point. It's deeply unpopular with Europeans, it splits European elites, major sticking points (such as the status of Cyprus) remain, and Turkey is backsliding away from the Copenhagen Criteria.
The best option, then, might be to suspend accession talks (rather than pushing forward, as the EU has recently done), in the hopes that a post-Erdogan Turkey might get serious about taking the necessary steps. In the long run, though, it's hard to see a case for continuing the process.
And it's important to remember that ending accession talks does not preclude continuing or even expanding the Customs Union, or pursuing other forms of collaboration.