EU and Turkey - Proximity benefits more than distance

Comment by Christiane Schlötzer. Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28 September 2018

Turkey wanted to be a member of the EU by 2023 at the latest. Then the Republic will be 100 years old. When it comes to questions of national pride, the great historic arc is eagerly sought. So the new airport in Istanbul must necessarily be opened on the national holiday on 29 October, even if it is not finished yet. And that is why the path – always leading west as Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic, once said- should culminate in his goal until the anniversary year. But even the fortune tellers reading coffee cups in Istanbul do not now dare tell their customers that this hope could be realized. Hence the end of the dream.

As far as Turkey is concerned, the EU has never thought of such long periods of time anyway. The so-called pre-accession funds, billions of euros to make the admission candidates fit for the community, are scheduled for Ankara until 2020. But the EU Commission has just cut the funds sharply, even the money actually paid lately was much less  than what was originally made available because, for example, of the difficulty of finding in Ankara any judges left to train in the area of an independent judiciary along the EU lines. The cumbersome term pre-accession aid says there will eventually be accession. If even the fortune tellers do not see the possibility of the EU accession in coffee cups, it may be logical to save the money. What is annoying is that the disappointed also include those who have been engaged in the defense , for example, of human rights, freedom of the press or involved in environmental protection projects. Yes, that too. The EU has also invested in Turkish civil society, not always to the delight of Ankara.

However, the protest from this same civil society against the cut in funding is likely to be weak, because some of their vocal and powerful representatives are in prison. Like the entrepreneur and philathropist Osman Kavala, now in prison almost a year under the most flimsy accusations and so far without charge. Five years ago, Kavala was one of the signatories to an impressive appeal to the German government. This was preceded by the brutal crackdown on the Istanbul Gezi Uprising, a rather bourgeois protest. At that time, the European Council wanted to punish Turkey by postponing the negotiations on the chapter on regional policy. That did not sound dramatic, but was in fact intended as a freeze on the EU talks. In the appeal Kavala and his colleagues wrote: "We are convinced that such a sanction is wrong."

But what should Europe do? Although Erdoğan now promises to restart relations with the EU and Germany in dire financial straits, Ankara will not meet the Copenhagen criteria. Before the constitutional amendment, which gave him all power, Erdoğan claimed that "the nation" knows no internal conflicts, which is why no separation of powers is needed. This shows that the president lives in his own reality, and it should stay that way for the time being.

Now there are other EU states that have presidents with a similar world view. But that does not change the fact that Turkey, as it is, does not fit into the EU. But that does not mean that the EU can now put Turkey offside. On the contrary, it needs an alternative goal, beyond membership, and also beyond the privileged partnership originally developed by the CDU / CSU. Even the word "privileged" seems to have fallen out of time today, after all the burdens that lie in the German-Turkish relationship.

But if you leave behind the polemics of the past and the pomp of a state visit, then there would still be something like a cool pragmatism in relation to Turkey. Extending the customs union, for example, could be recommended. That would help the economically troubled Turkey and would also be useful to the EU. But the EU would have to but wipe away the punishment and think about what is useful to both sides. The long-fought visa-free regime could also be part of it. While there are fierce odds and no single measure such as the abolition of the visa requirement would improve the image of Europe- indeed of the West- in Turkey, the requirement is a burden for the Turkish economy and also for every Turkish family with relatives in Germany.

After Erdoğan's tense visit to Berlin, a new phase of disappointment is likely to begin. Because German investors will continue to hesitate, as long as they do not feel safe in Turkey; because Ankara has absurd expectations, such as the extradition to Turkey of the journalist Can Dündar. Did the state visit bring anything at all? Yes. Because dialogue beyond the red carpet can help build pressure on Ankara. Distance is less useful. It also does not promote understanding of the needs of others.

There is also nothing to celebrate for Turkey in 2024, the European Football Championship will take place in Germany and not in Turkey. There were good reasons for this: the state of the economy, but also human rights. That both are related, Erdoğan should be told again and again.