5 April 2018

The discreet charm of hypocrisy: An EU-Turkey Power Audit

Among European elites, there is still substantial support for a strategic partnership with Turkey – albeit not for advancing the beleaguered accession process. Europe needs to find new channels through which to engage with Ankara. Since Turkey shows no immediate desire to restore the rule of law or a reform process, for the time being EU member states can, at best, strive to engage in transactional bilateral relations with Turkey, as an effective partnership with the country is critical to their interests. Ankara and the Council of Europe should work together to address issues such as human rights, the rule of law, and political freedoms in Turkey – outside of the EU accession process but in line with the Copenhagen Criteria. The EU should update its customs union with Turkey, not least because trade between the two sidess has generally benefited pro-European Turkish businesses and civil society groups. The EU and Turkey should establish a framework for addressing disputes that involve the Turkish diaspora in Europe, while coordinating their policies on conflicts in the Middle East. 


Addressing a press conference in Paris in January 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complained that years of waiting for membership of the European Union was “seriously exhausting us and seriously exhausting our nation. Maybe this [situation] will force us to take a decision.” French President Emmanuel Macron replied, “for relations with the European Union, it is clear that recent developments and choices allow no progress.” He continued, “We must get out of a hypocrisy that consists in thinking that a natural progression towards opening new chapters is possible. It’s not true.” 

Journalists and officials have quietly used the word “hypocrisy” to describe Turkey’s planned accession to the EU since 2010, when the process came to a halt with the sides having opened only 16 chapters of negotiations. But it is rare for a European leader to use such language in an official setting. When asked about Macron’s comments on his way back from Paris, Erdoğan said, “I didn’t want to understand what he said exactly. I focused on getting them to understand us. I thought he should understand what I am saying. I focused on explaining that as good [sic] as possible.” Taken together, Macron’s remarks and Erdoğan’s reaction are a microcosm of Turkey’s relationship with the EU. 

Today, 12 years after the start of the accession negotiations, 30 years after Turkey’s application for accession to the EU, and more than half a century after an association agreement with the European Economic Community, this relationship is in a parlous state. At best, it is an exercise in hypocrisy that works for both sides. At worst, it is a dialogue of the deaf that will lead to a slow divorce. 

Of course, things did not have to go this way. Turkey’s membership bid was once hailed as a major strategic opportunity for both sides. Now, many chapters of the accession negotiations are blocked and several European leaders have announced that there is little prospect of EU enlargement. The Turkey–EU relationship suffers from periodic political crises involving, and diplomatic spats between, Ankara and various European governments. Initial enthusiasm has given way to rancour on both sides. 

So, what can be preserved and achieved in the relationship? Should the sides keep the moribund accession process on the books or start discussing a new framework? How will Turkey and the EU manage overwhelmingly negative public perceptions of each other while elites struggle to prolong the status quo? In short, is there value in hypocrisy when it comes to Turkey’s relations with Europe? 

The European Council on Foreign Relations’ new survey of on perceptions of Turkey within 28 EU member states reveals the extent to which hypocrisy has become a fundamental and almost functional aspect of the EU-Turkey relationship. Despite the problems facing the accession process and strong public opposition to Turkey’s membership across Europe, nearly all European governments believe – for widely varying reasons – that they should maintain, but not advance, the accession process in its current state. 

All member states recognise that Turkey’s public image in Europe has deteriorated in recent years, and that EU citizens generally oppose Turkish accession. But, at the same time, EU countries see Turkey as a major strategic ally, an important (or potentially important) trading partner, and a power that should be kept close. 

Although EU member states and European decision-makers have little desire to revive the accession process, many view Turkey as a crucial partner. In the new ECFR survey, 46 percent of EU decision-makers who responded to the questionnaire stated that their government “supports Turkey becoming a member of the EU,” while another 25 percent said that there is “strong support” for Turkish membership within their governments. Only one EU member state officially wants to suspend Turkey’s accession bid. Sixteen out of the 28 “want to keep frozen accession process as it is.” 

Paradoxically, dysfunction and hypocrisy help maintain the accession process. This is because countries that might quietly have questions about full Turkish membership of the EU, such as Poland and Cyprus, can claim to support the process safe in the knowledge that it will remain stalled. Meanwhile, Turkey can use the power of hypocrisy to build a model for cooperation with the EU, preserving the status quo in the accession process with the support of around 70 percent of EU decision-makers. 

This is a considerable majority. Although Turkey has long focused on its disputes with the European Commission and EU politicians, the most dedicated pro-Turkey advocates remain EU elites – officials, diplomats, and decision-makers. Meanwhile, EU citizens are far less tolerant of Turkey’s current direction and its divergence from European norms and values. 

In wanting to keep Turkey close, EU member states have varying reasons but are primarily motivated by either fear or greed. Those that strongly advocate maintaining the accession process do so out of either a sense of vulnerability, a strategic need, or the belief that Turkey is economically important to Europe. For example, Greece, Cyprus, and Bulgaria believe that Turkey’s engagement with the accession process reduces the threat it poses to their national security, and that it provides them with some leverage over Turkey. Despite the strong anti-Muslim sentiment in parts of Polish society, Poland fears a strong Germany and would like to have another big player on the scene – hence its support for the accession process continuing as it is. Britain sees the possibility of a loose union in general – and favours enlarging the EU over deepening relations between its member states. Rome, Madrid, and Paris are deeply interested in a realpolitik approach based on economic relations with Turkey given the country’s potential for growth. Small EU countries such as Malta, Estonia, and Slovenia support Turkey’s bid either because they want to have good relations with Ankara, have growing ties with the Turkish economy, or welcome another state that would balance the influence of the EU’s major players. Some member states’ attachment to the dysfunctional status quo comes from fear of being engulfed in a large, strong Europe. Some believe that there is a strategic case for Turkey joining the EU in the future – but not necessarily now. 

Most European countries would like Turkey to remain in the limbo between being an insider and an outsider. It may well be that, despite the hypocrisy and dysfunction, the status quo is Ankara’s most significant asset in preserving its relationship with Europe during a turbulent era. Turkey has become increasingly inward-looking and ever less democratic in the past few years, especially since the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Despite this, EU-Turkey relations have remained intact. The European Commission and the European Council have dismissed calls from the European Parliament to suspend the accession talks. It is important to preserve Turkey’s European membership bid for future generations. 

These trends suggest that if Turkey reverses its drift towards authoritarianism, it may have a chance to revive its accession bid. Yet the status quo has created a kind of institutionalised hypocrisy, allows for no genuine movement towards integration, and marginalises the need for Turkey to adopt the EU’s values as part of its accession bid. As a consequence, the accession process has lost all credibility. Turkish bureaucrats who work on the EU accession process often emphasise the fact that this state of limbo is not what Ankara wants but this is what it gets. The only movement in the accession process in recent years involved a brief opening in EU-Turkey relations with the migration deal the sides reached in December 2016. At the moment, the Turkish government shows no apparent desire to return to a governance system centred on the rule of law and displays little regard for the Copenhagen Criteria. And the EU shows no indication of either reviving the accession process or pushing Turkey out. 

Here are more examples of hypocrisy. Despite the widespread belief that Turkey is important to the EU, only 36 percent of EU decision-makers would like to open new chapters in the accession negotiations, while 57 percent of them would prefer to keep the process “frozen” in its current state. There is a general acceptance that Turkey’s public image has deteriorated overall across member states in the last few years, with some countries complaining about high-profile human rights cases involving their citizens – as seen with the Turkish authorities’ arrest of Die Weltreporter Deniz Yücel on terrorism charges, which caused an outcry in Germany. Nonetheless, 24 member states believe that the EU “should not be any more outspoken on human rights and democracy” – only four member states make a case for greater emphasis on human rights in Turkish-EU ties. 

European elites like the idea of Turkey, as opposed to the reality; and they like the notion of a strategic alliance with the country, but not necessarily as a member of the club. Officials in 22 member states assert that their governments believe Turkey to be “a strategically important partner and would make the EU stronger”. 

Only one member state wants to formally end the accession process and only one government officially holds the view that the EU-Turkey relationship should be recast as a “privileged partnership”. Yet, in reality, the interrupted and dysfunctional process closely resembles the privileged partnership Turks have been rejecting all along due to its connotations of second-tier status. 

A new language and a new framework are needed to reconcile these apparent contradictions. Where they aim to develop the Turkey-EU relationship while suspending (but not ending) the accession process, Turks and Europeans need to speak not of “Turkish membership of the EU” but rather of “Turkey and Europe” as two historic, neighbouring powers. When the focus moves away from the accession process, it becomes relatively easy for EU member states and citizens to recognise that an effective partnership with Turkey is critical to their interests. “Turkey-Europe” highlights a strategic need; “Turkey-EU” is all about Turkey’s shortcomings. A new conceptual framing needs to mention Turkey’s historical and strategic ties to the continent and de-emphasise its shortcomings in the accession process. In the meantime, bilateral ties are the likely model for Turkey’s future engagement with member states. 

Another important reminder from ECFR’s new Power Audit is that the relationship with Turkey is an elite game. Turkish leaders in Ankara should understand that the only real advocates for the relationship are those that represent the establishment in Europe – that is, the collective of bureaucrats and politicians Turkish officials often fume at. 

As this study confirms, the support of European elites sustains the EU’s relationship with Turkey. Leaders in Ankara should recognise this fact even as they launch verbal attacks on EU bureaucrats and politicians. 

Despite the apparent downturn in relations, the arguments in support of Turkey’s membership bid within the establishment do not seem to have changed much in the past decade. According to ECFR’s new survey, 79 percent of EU respondents (most of them officials) believe that their country sees Turkey as a strategically important partner that can make the EU stronger. That figure accounts for 22 of 28 member states. Another 61 percent believe that Turkey’s accession to the EU would provide their country with new economic opportunities. Coming at the lowest point in EU-Turkey relations in recent times, these findings should hearten Ankara. 

Of course, public opinion is a different matter. Public sentiment about Turkey sharply diverges from the views of the establishment. According to one survey taken in 2017, 84 percent of Germans oppose Turkey’s membership of the EU.[1]In ECFR’s new survey, only 7 percent of respondents said that the public in their countries supports Turkey’s accession bid, 39 percent viewed the public as indifferent to the issue, and the remaining majority admitted that the public opposed Turkish membership of the EU. Almost 70 percent of respondents noted that Turkey’s public image has deteriorated in the past two years, producing greater popular opposition to Turkish accession. 

These findings indicate that the EU’s debate on Turkey will continue to be a matter of elites versus “the people” – or the establishment versus public opinion. European elites want a close relationship with Ankara – and in many member states focus on Turkey’s long-term strategic and economic value. But the public remains unconvinced. It is no coincidence that spikes in Turkish-European tension almost always coincide with elections in Europe or Turkey. Turkey’s membership bid was a major topic during the Brexit referendum, as well as in the recent Dutch, Austrian, and German elections. European leaders show relatively little willingness to accommodate Ankara during an election, the time at which they are most under pressure to cater to public opinion. 

In navigating this difficult territory, particularly the widening gap between elite views and public opinion, Turkish and EU leaders require an approach more nuanced than simple repetitions of support for the status quo. The results of ECFR’s new survey underline the need to develop a new language to describe the importance of EU-Turkey relations outside the scope of the accession process. Both sides need to start framing the debate as “Turkey and Europe” – as opposed to “Turkey and the EU” – and to avoid language that focuses on the fatigued enlargement process. 

There is reason to downplay accession on both sides. Discussions on Turkey’s accession to the EU generally emphasise the country’s weak points – its democratic deficit, the Cyprus issue, and its indifference to the rule of law. The Turkish government resents what it regards as the “hierarchical” tone of the accession process, while Europeans feel that Turkey’s progress is too slow. However, when the relationship is more transactional and the discussion is “Turkey and Europe”, as two partners, there is an inherent equality in the discourse that the Turkish government has wanted all along. Instead of framing every advance or setback in the relationship as part of the accession process, the sides can work together as strategic partners and establish the tone the Turkish government has asked for all along. 

Such a transactional relationship, with a focus on bilateral ties, is perhaps the only realistic way to maintain EU–Turkey ties for the moment. Moving away from the accession focus would likely reduce tensions with the European Commission and help European leaders accommodate public opinion, while allowing for deeper bilateral engagement with Turkey on business deals, foreign policy, and counter-terrorism. Indeed, by placing a strong emphasis on trade and counter-terrorism, Macron presented such a model during Erdoğan’s visit to Paris in January 2018. (French officials argue that bilateral engagement also allows them to raise individual human rights issues with their Turkish interlocutors – albeit with mixed success.) 

When it comes to bilateral ties, most European nations seem happy to engage in some type of a give and take with Ankara, even though their citizens sometimes criticise this exchange. For example, following the Brexit vote, Britain was eager to increase trade with Turkey and came to see Ankara as an essential partner in stabilising Syria and Iraq. Similarly, the French value their partnership with Turkey on counter-terrorism. During Erdoğan’s visit to Paris in January 2018, French companies signed a few billion euros’ worth of investments with leading Turkish firms. It is easier to make a case for bilateralism than for accession. For Bulgaria, economic relations with Turkey are important, as are attempts to keep Ankara out of Moscow’s orbit. For Greece, efforts to maintain the EU-Turkey refugee deal and good relations with Erdoğan are paramount to domestic stability. For Germany, the presence of a large Turkish diaspora creates a human bridge between the two nations that no politician can ignore. For Belgium, counter-terrorism cooperation with Turkey is important in containing returning jihadists. The list of examples is long. When tension around the accession process is set aside, engagement with Turkey appeals to all member states. 

This is not to suggest that either side terminate the accession process. But since it is frozen and Ankara shows no real commitment to the Copenhagen Criteria (for the moment), Europe and Turkey should shift their focus to maintaining a functional relationship. Rather than be trapped by the existential question of whether to keep or terminate the accession process, European and Turkish leaders should direct their energy at cooperation in areas of mutual interest – at least for the next few years. In this context, bilateral relations with member states – with an emphasis on foreign policy, counter-terrorism, and economic partnership – should form the new framework for cooperation. 

Such a shift may already be happening. After a year of rising tension with the EU, Ankara’s recent efforts to reset relations with France and Germany revolve around a new, bilateral agenda – which is divorced from the accession process.[2] Similarly, when Erdoğan travelled to Paris in January 2018, his first official visit to a western European capital for some time, it was not to advance Turkey’s EU accession bid but to strengthen bilateral economic ties. Equally, although Macron raised various human rights issues during talks with the Turkish leader, his main goal seemed to be maintaining open channels of communication with a powerful regional partner rather than to push Turkey towards accession. 


During the last two years, public exchanges between Turkish and European leaders have often descended into vitriol and resentment. Turkey’s April 2017 referendum, as well as the Dutch and German election that year, led to a new low in the public discourse on EU-Turkey relations. Turkey’s strongman has called both German and Dutch officials “Nazi remnants” on separate occasions.[3] In 2016, Britain’s Spectator magazine ran a competition featuring a £1,000 prize for rude poetry about Erdoğan – a prize that went to soon-to-be foreign minister Boris Johnson. Both the opposition and the governing coalition in Germany have questioned whether Turkey under Erdoğan was fit for EU membership in the run-up to the German election. The German authorities have prevented Erdoğan and other Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaders from holding mass election rallies in Germany for the Turkish diaspora there.[4] In turn, Erdoğan made anti-German and anti-European rhetoric the cornerstone of his April 2017 referendum campaign to expand presidential powers. These mutual recriminations have further eroded public support for Turkey’s accession to the EU. As noted above, elections in Turkey and EU countries often coincide with an escalation in hostile rhetoric that, as the latter recognise, causes significant damage to Turkey’s brand in the EU. 

This verbal war of attrition must stop. Fortunately, there are signs that it will: in January 2018, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Sigmar Gabriel, then German foreign minister, agreed to resuscitate dialogue between their countries on the condition that, among other things, the sides observe a ceasefire in public feuding. Of course, Turkey and Europe will continue to criticise each other, but unless this criticism remains within the scope of civilised debate, there will be a further decline in public support for their relationship. 

This means Ankara must avoid describing EU leaders as “Nazis” or using other deeply offensive terms. In the run-up to the April 2017 referendum, attacks on the EU became common in Turkish public discourse as the governing AKP worked to secure the nationalist vote. Pro-government media outlets followed AKP officials’ lead in not only directing harsh criticism at “Europe” in general terms but also depicting an alleged pan-European effort to weaken Turkey and its leadership. These tactics both poisoned EU-Turkey relations and alienated the sizeable portion of Turkish society that still harbours pro-European sentiment. 

Turkish leaders also need to move away from sweeping statements about a “civilisational clash” with the West – common parlance since the 2016 coup attempt. Although Turkey’s Islamist government has a great interest in playing a leadership role in the Middle East, the country remains part of the Western alliance as a member of NATO and the Council of Europe. Turkish policymakers should also be careful not to equate EU criticism of Turkey’s human rights record with support for “terrorism”. Such blanket accusations erode the Turkish public’s trust in the EU and desire for a shared future with Europe. They also perpetuate a dynamic in which an inward-looking Turkey sees its Western allies as potential enemies eager to “carve up” the country. 

Turkey has its own concerns too. As far as AKP officials are concerned, the most significant cause of tension between Turkey and Europe is the latter’s single-minded focus on Erdoğan. Ankara feels compelled to officially react to criticism of Erdoğan more than anything else – even if half of Turkish society applauds such criticism. Importantly, the Turkish government tends not to distinguish between condemnation of Erdoğan from European officials and leaders, and that from civil society and media outlets. There is an increasing tendency within the Turkish bureaucracy and the AKP elite to see media outlets and civil society groups, including human rights organisations, as the secret arm of Western governments. In answering a parliamentary question tabled by the opposition, Hakan Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, said in December 2017, “Media freedom indices are Western-centric and the concept of media freedom is Western-centric, not taking into account the conditions of the country.”[5] Erdoğan has warned that Turks who study in the West and work for Western companies or institutions willingly become spies for the West.[6] In various speeches, he has accused Yücel and Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala – whose imprisonment has also caused controversy in Europe – of supporting terrorism. 

Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government’s suspicions about the West became a daily talking point. Ankara is drifting towards a Russian-style divergence from the EU in the debate on values, seeing the promotion of human rights, free speech, and vibrant civil society as an effort to undercut its sovereignty. In the current climate, the EU can do little to bridge this divide with the ruling AKP. Therefore, European leaders should stick to their principles but not personalise disputes with Turkey by focusing on Erdoğan. Doing otherwise would produce a considerable backlash from the government of Turkey. Similarly, European leaders and EU officials should try to explain to their Turkish counterparts, particularly AKP leaders, that Europe’s civil society and media have a life of their own and are unlikely to defer to the government’s preferences. 

As hard to accept as it may be, the gap in values is a reality for the moment. But Turks and Europeans can still find common ground, especially in transactional arrangements. For example, with the recent thaw in their relationship, Ankara and Berlin have made a noticeable effort to refrain from public criticism of each other – with the latter avoiding comments on Turkey’s human rights record. In turn, Turkish leaders have curbed comments that are deeply offensive to Germans. The Germany-bashing in Turkey’s pro-government media has ceased completely – the focus having shifted to tensions with the United States, particularly Washington’s support for Syrian Kurds, whom Ankara considers to be terrorists. 

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