Europe should be careful what it wishes for with Turkey

mujtaba rehman is head of the Eurasia Group̵7;s Europe practice and a columnist for Politico Europe. He tweets at @miz_Europe,

Turkey’s parliamentary elections and the first round of presidential elections marked a major victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Contrary to expectations, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his People’s Alliance – which includes the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – won a majority in parliament. In addition, the long-serving leader scored much higher than predicted in the first-round presidential election, coming in at 49.42 percent compared to his main opposition rival, Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilikdaroglu, who Got 44.95 percent. vote.

Barring one major surprise, Erdogan now looks set to clinch victory on May 28 in two weeks’ time. And, oddly enough, some people in the EU will be heaving a sigh of relief.

In both Brussels and other EU capitals, there was growing concern that the Kılıçdaroğlu presidency would attempt to redefine and qualitatively advance Turkey’s relations with the EU. This will not only involve upgrading the EU-Turkey customs union and striking a deal on visa liberalisation, but it will also likely try to restart long-stalled accession talks.

However, the timing of Kılıçdaroğlu’s victory and reset bid will be incredibly awkward for the EU, coming at the same moment the bloc’s capitals are starting serious debates and digesting the deeper implications of Ukraine’s entry into the EU.

In fact, the bloc’s leaders now look likely to formally open agreements with Kiev at the December summit.

There is concern among senior EU officials that Kılıçdaroğlu’s desire to reactivate EU-Turkey accession talks could complicate the very sensitive debate on enlargement and Ukraine, even though Kiev has wider political support than Ankara. be received This is because some in Brussels, as well as in several EU capitals, are of the view that the western Balkans as well as Ukraine’s inclusion in the EU may require the price of being clear that Turkey will never join. .

“At some point, we will have to make it clear that Ukraine and the Western Balkans are the final extension. It is unimaginable that the EU will be able to absorb both Turkey and Ukraine. The market will not bear it,” said one on condition of anonymity. The senior officer told me.

And because of Russia’s war of aggression, Ukraine’s accession has gained further momentum. In fact, its entry into the bloc is now seen as a geopolitical necessity, even if realized in a time frame of a decade or so. “Ukraine changes the game” when it comes to Turkey, is how a senior EU official put it.

Publicly, the EU leader would, of course, welcome Kılıçdaroğlu presidency, if he won. They will also support his reform agenda, and indicate a willingness to work more constructively with him. But the Ukraine war has made Turkey a lower priority for the bloc – a victim not only of long-standing EU reservations and prejudices, but also of geopolitical imperatives.

Therefore, if Kılıçdaroğlu wins on May 28, Turkey is likely to be on the agenda at the June summit for member states to strategize.

But the outcome of that discussion is already clear: the EU will take refuge in “constructive ambiguity”. This means that in the event of a victory for the opposition, accession talks will probably resume, but in the knowledge that they will remain open-ended. And instead of outright rejecting Kılıçdaroğlu’s advances, both sides would instead focus on a brief, short-term “positive agenda”.

Or, as another senior EU official put it: “Why lose political credit for scrapping an already dead process?” This was essentially the view of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was personally opposed to Turkey joining the European Union, but agreed to remain vague.

It will not be possible to make separate, difficult, ambitious promises to re-establish the relationship.

But the EU should be careful what it wishes for.

While it is true that if Erdogan wins, the otherwise difficult debate over the bloc’s expansion policy will be avoided, and relations will once again settle into the familiar pattern of cordiality, transactions and hostile policies that both sides knew. And understand, many challenges will remain – and perhaps grow – under his continued presidency.

Relations are likely to cool down in no time. Brussels will prioritize providing $7 billion in financial aid to help Turkey recover from February’s devastating earthquakes, while Ankara will likely prove more receptive to growing pressure from the EU – and the United States – to stop the evasion of Russian sanctions Will happen.

Erdogan’s efforts to secure a UN-backed Black Sea grain deal between Russia and Ukraine will also be welcomed in Europe. Slamming the EU for not doing more, Ankara will still work with Brussels to secure billions of euros in aid funding for the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

But Kılıçdaroğlu would prove to be even more receptive to the growing pressure to actually stop the evasion of Russian sanctions. And he is likely to further redouble efforts to secure the Black Sea grain deal.

Under Kılıçdaroğlu, Ankara will work more constructively with Brussels on the management of Syrian refugees.

But in the medium to long term, if Erdogan indeed wins, further democratic backsliding and competing geopolitical interests will rekindle tensions. Türkiye’s accession talks will be stalled; Updating the 2016 migration pact, or completing some of its clauses, remains highly unlikely; Brussels will continue to deny visa-free travel to Turkish citizens across the bloc; And there will be no movement on updating the 1995 EU-Turkey Customs Union. Instead, stable EU-Turkey relations will only deteriorate further.

A bilateral dispute between Turkey on the one hand and EU member Greece and/or Cyprus on the other would also risk escalating tensions between Ankara and the entire bloc, which could lead to another attempt by Erdoğan to force refugees and migrants out of Europe. may indicate. It could also escalate military tensions – especially if Turkey begins hydrocarbon exploration in disputed waters.

Overall, what Turkey’s elections have clearly exposed is the lack of a clear EU-Turkey policy.

“Better the devil you know” is not an option.