A Turkish-EU Opera Buffa

When Turkey officially applied to become a full member of the European Union (EU), cell phones looked like bricks, Red Bull and The Simpsons had just made their debuts, President Ronald Reagan made his famous “Tear down this wall!” speech in West Berlin, the world population was five billion, Colonel Qaddafi in Libya was playing godfather to terrorists, Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of Britain, Gestapo boss Klaus Barbie was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, the first intifada was launched, and sports superstars Lionel Messi and Maria Sharapova were newborn babies.

It was 1987. The mere opening of accession negotiations with Turkey would take another 18 years. Another 12 years after that, everyone in Brussels and Ankara knows full well that Turkish membership in the EU is an impossibility for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, the Turks think that 1) their country deserves full membership and 2) the only reason the EU has not granted them membership is because they are Muslim. Few diagnoses could be as inaccurate as this.

Three decades after Turkey formally applied for membership, it stands at position 146 on the Global Peace Index and position 155 on the World Press Freedom Index.

Against this unpleasant backdrop, the European Parliament has called for Turkey’s accession talks to be suspended if Ankara fully implements plans to expand Erdoğan’s powers, which he narrowly won in a referendum on April 16. Although the parliament’s vote is not binding, it illustrates the gulf that has grown between Ankara and Brussels.

The resolution passed by the parliament in Strasbourg “calls on the Commission and the member states … to formally suspend the accession negotiations with Turkey without delay if the constitutional reform package is implemented unchanged.”

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If the object of the resolution was to rein Erdoğan in, it didn’t work. He remains defiant. He said the majority of Turks did not “want the EU anymore”, and the EU is not indispensable for Turkey.

For decades, Turkey and the EU have been the lead actors in a strange, not very amusing opera buffa. Turkey says it wants to join the club with no obligation to comply with membership rules. The club says it wants Turkey, although it knows full well that the applicant does not qualify. Turkey hopes the club rules will change; the club hopes the applicant will change. Neither will happen.

But both know that formally calling off the show will not benefit either party. In the curtains-down scenario, Turkey suffers economically and the EU faces an officially hostile Turkey (as opposed to today’s unofficially hostile one). It could find itself suffering from Turkey’s “nuisance value” (remember Turkish threats last year to “open the doors and send millions of immigrants to Europe.”)

Regardless, the tedious rounds of mutual pretension are growing less sustainable by the day.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum