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Five Years After the EU-Turkey Statement: Germany Can Contribute to Navigating a Turbulent Relationship

Picture: Shutterstock

by Funda Tekin*

In November 2015, the EU and Turkey, triggered by an unpre­ce­dented surge in migration from the Middle East, agreed on a package of measures that were meant to upgrade their relati­onship. Accor­dingly, accession negotia­tions were to be re-energized, visa libera­lization was to be facili­tated, coope­ration in areas of mutual interest were to be inten­sified through high-level dialogues, the Customs Union was to be moder­nized and mecha­nisms for tackling the ‘refugee crisis’ – including a Refugee Facility for Turkey of €6 billion – were to be set up.

However, instead of improving, the relati­onship between the EU and Turkey has deteriorate even further since, repea­tedly reaching all-time lows in the inter­vening years. The landmarks in this deterio­ration have been:

As a result, five years after the EU-Turkey statement, the challenges facing the two sides have changed – and not for the better.

At the special European Council summit on 1–2 October 2020, EU heads of state or government agreed to launch a positive political agenda that – just like the 2015 statement – promises the moder­nization of the Customs Union and trade facili­tation, people to people contacts, high-level dialogues, and continued coope­ration on migration issues, all of this provided constructive efforts to stop illegal activities vis-à-vis Greece and Cyprus are sustained. Simul­ta­neously, the EU said it would resort to the decision on restrictive measures taken in November 2019 if Turkey continued its unila­teral actions in breach of inter­na­tional law. This represents an attempt to set the course for preventing EU-Turkey relations, which are in a state of ‘conflictual coope­ration’, from deterio­rating even further. Just like five years ago, Germany can play an important role in the EU’s naviga­tions of the turbulent waters of EU-Turkey relations.

In that context, what role, if any, should Germany play and how can it navigate the turbulent waters of EU-Turkey relations?

The Complexity of EU-Turkey Relations and of Germany’s Position

Broadly speaking, EU-Turkey relations have three dimen­sions, which are reflected in different insti­tu­tional frameworks.

First, Turkey is embedded in the EU’s enlar­gement policy. It has been a candidate for membership since 1999 and accession negotia­tions started in 2005. However, its prospects have always been contested and negotia­tions had been stagnating for more than a decade before the General Affairs Council decided in June 2018 against opening additional negotiation chapters putting the acces­sions perspective off the table for the time being.

Second, in economic terms Turkey is a key partner for the EU and they are associated through the Customs Union. Yet, the EU-Turkey Association Council has convened only once over the past four years and the June 2018 General Affairs Council also decided to put on hold plans for moder­nizing the Customs Union.

Third, Turkey is a strategic partner for the EU in security and the fight against terrorism, in migration issues and in energy policy. Transac­tional coope­ration in these fields have gained in importance in recent years and changed the overall terms of the relati­onship. In view of Turkey’s diminished accession prospect and its key role in the EU’s migration policy, there is a question as to how much the EU might have lost leverage over the country. The most recent develo­p­ments also show that there is incre­asing potential for conflict between the two sides even in areas of transac­tional coope­ration, putting in question whether Turkey will remain a strategic partner for the EU at all.

The relati­onship between Germany and Turkey is similarly complex. The two countries have strong bilateral relations that date back centuries and that are parti­cu­larly strong in the economic, societal and political spheres. As political elites in Turkey persis­t­ently demand EU membership, this prevents Germany from openly contesting it. Conse­quently, German positions regarding the EU-Turkey relati­onship are diverse and to a certain extent ambiguous, and attempt not to alienate Turkey.

The coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens between 1998 and 2005 was the only government that proac­tively supported Turkey’s EU membership. Since then, the different govern­ments led by Chancellor Angela Merkel have been less convinced about this and only supported the accession process on the principle that Germany should keep to agree­ments reached earlier. One of the first concepts for a possible alter­native to membership – ‘privi­leged partnership’ – was coined by Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union in the early 2000s. However, during the federal elections campaign of 2017 it was the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, who promised to put an end to accession negotia­tions with Turkey.

There is nonetheless broad agreement across the political spectrum in Germany on Turkey’s geostra­tegic relevance, irrespective of the question of its EU membership. Economic relations are likewise tradi­tio­nally perceived as important since Germany is Turkey’s leading trading partner. In 2015 the migration dimension also became important and Chancellor Merkel played a decisive role in striking the ‘migration deal’ between the EU and Turkey in March 2016.

Way forward: Germany as the ‘good cop’

The EU-Turkey relati­onship has so far proven resilient and its multiple, highly inter­de­pendent dimen­sions have prevented a full breakup. However, things have changed to the extent that conflict and adver­sarial actions threaten to become its predo­minant feature.

The EU’s decision in October to offer a positive political agenda while reserving the right to use restrictive measures in case of continued adver­sarial actions by Turkey is an attempt to balance relations within the state of conflictual coope­ration. For this to succeed, three condi­tions are needed.

First, it is necessary to prevent the positive political agenda from getting overtaken by negative develo­p­ments, just like the EU-Turkey statement of 2015. The fact that the moder­nization of the Customs Union is now linked to foreign policy issues rather than to political condi­tio­nality might help. At the same time, it is important to capitalize on the fact that the upgrading of the Customs Union is currently the only functioning framework of rules-based coope­ration that can have an effect on domestic reforms in Turkey. Second, Turkey needs to stop its adver­sarial actions. Its decision to send the explo­ration vessel Oruç Reis into the Eastern Mediter­ranean right after the EU’s October summit was not helpful. Third, both sides need to re-engage in dialogue in areas of mutual interest.

Germany can be an important player in facili­tating such condi­tions. There are two advan­tages to its long-lasting and strong relati­onship with Turkey that Berlin should build on. First, Germany’s stance matters a lot within the EU while Turkey’s elites perceive the country as an important negotiation partner on behalf of the EU. Hence, Germany has leadership potential in this field. Second, Germany promotes a conci­li­atory position towards Turkey within the EU that can help to mitigate the current conflictual situation. For example, its mediation in the summer of 2020 contri­buted to bringing Turkey and Greece back to the table for explo­ratory negotia­tions over the issue of conti­nental shelves in the Eastern Mediter­ranean, highlighting how effective German inter­ven­tions can be.

There are at least three EU member states in open conflict with Turkey today: Greece over the issue of conti­nental shelves, Cyprus over terri­torial issues, and France over the issue of Libya and recently Islam and Islamism. These countries can only be expected to take harsh positions vis-à-vis Turkey. Negotia­tions sometimes benefit from a combi­nation of ‘bad cop’ and ‘good cop’ positions. Hence, while acting in full solidarity with its fellow member states, Germany should use its leadership potential and not shy away from playing the ‘good cop’ in negotia­tions between the EU and Turkey.

* This paper was written within the Research Project “TRIANGLE — Blick­wechsel in EU/German-Turkish Relations Beyond Conflicts – Towards a Unique Partnership for a Contem­porary Turkey?” that is part of the Stiftung Mercator funded programme “Blick­wechsel: Contem­porary Turkey Studies”.


This #Berlin­Per­spec­tives reflects the author’s views only.


About the author

Dr. Funda Tekin is one of the two directors of Institut für Europäische Politik and External Senior Research Fellow at Centre of Turkey and European Union Studies (CETEUS), University of Cologne.


#Berlin­Per­spec­tives is published by the Institut für Europäische Politik and provides precise analyses and policy recom­men­da­tions for Germany’s European policy on current issues and debates.

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