France and Germany stopped short of declaring an end to the possibility of Turkey one day joining the European Union on April 28, instead opting to try to reframe the Brussels-Ankara relationship by pursuing the possibility of broadening trade ties.
Since April 16 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed a narrow and contested victory in a controversial referendum on introducing a powerful executive presidency, there have been calls from some EU member states to tear up Turkey’s five decade old dream of joining the European bloc.
But at the end of a summit in Valletta, Malta, held by EU foreign ministers and Turkey's top diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu (pictured), German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters he was "strictly against" annulling Turkey's EU accession process, which was initiated in 2005.
"We can try to open new channels for negotiations," Gabriel said, referencing the proposal that the EU should now move to broaden its trade ties with Turkey, granting Turkish companies more tariff-free export opportunities.
Gabriel added: "It does not improve things by cancelling something before we have something new to offer."
"Nobody wants a break-up"
Following talks with Cavusoglu, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told the waiting press: "Nobody wants a break-up with Turkey. It is up to them to say what they want."
"How can we ignore Turkey?” Ayrault added, pointing to the Nato ally’s role in fighting terrorism directed at Europe from the Middle East and making good on its side of the deal with the EU to, in return for financial assistance, hold back flows of migrants eager to cross Turkey to reach the European continent.
However, while Gabriel and Ayrault were holding out something of a carrot, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was waving something of a stick at Ankara on April 27, urging it to answer questions in a report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe which found that up to 2.5mn votes could have been manipulated in the referendum.
"The Turkish government must measure itself based on this report and answer the questions raised in it," Merkel told the Bundestag lower house of parliament, reported Reuters. "We will very carefully follow how Turkey deals with reports of possible irregularities."
Of course, given Turkey’s great geopolitical, security and purely geographic importance to Europe and Europe’s importance to Turkey - the bloc’s half a billion citizens make the EU Turkey’s largest trading partner, and the EU is Turkey’s largest foreign investor - neither side is going to realistically want to quickly move for the exit in this relationship. But some European politicians fear Erdogan, emboldened and empowered by the referendum, may now embark on an era of authoritarian one-man rule that Brussels cannot be seen to stomach.
They are not so forgiving of the insults flung at Europe by the Turkish president during his campaign for the vote, or of his comments that international election observers should “know your place”, and have called for a formal suspension of Turkey’s EU accession talks. The politicians point out that the new constitution which the referendum victory grants Erdogan does not meet the democratic standards required of an EU member state.
"It would be absolutely wrong to stick to the illusion of accession [to the EU],” Austria's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz said, according to Reuters. Kurz has lately hit out at Ankara for its imprisonment of journalists and jailing of opposition figures.
AP quoted Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak at the summit questioning Turkey's credentials to join the EU. "Values must be underpinned by concrete steps and you must not be saying one thing and marching in a different direction," Lajcak reportedly said.
Dutch forgive "Nazi" jibes
But even though the Dutch bore much of the brunt of Erdogan’s “Nazi nation” jibes during the referendum campaign period, after the Netherlands barred Cavusoglu from entering the country to address a referendum gathering of expatriates, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders was, according to AP, conciliatory, stating: "Our bilateral relationships have been difficult, but my plan is to deescalate tension".
While the foreign ministers met in Malta, Erdogan - who while whipping up support on April 6 at a referendum rally went so far as to describe Europe as a “rotten continent” that has become “the centre of oppression, violence and Nazism” - was insisting to an Atlantic Council Istanbul summit that the EU had backed the No campaign before Turkey’s crucial vote.
AFP reported him as saying: “Okay, you [the EU] gave support for the No campaign [in the referendum]. You lost… From now you close that chapter and put efforts into how you will develop your relations with Turkey. Although you carried out that campaign, we are opening our door.”
According to the news service, the president’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin then insisted at the Istanbul summit that Turkey wants “to keep EU membership as a strategic goal”. “But it takes two to tango and if you will talk about partnership and trust it is a two way street,” he was reported as saying.
Erdogan, who has threatened to take the question of EU accession to a referendum and has accused the bloc of Islamophobia, said on April 25 that Turkey cannot wait indefinitely for a membership decision, noting it has already been in the queue for 54 years (referring to the 1963 Ankara Agreement which acknowledged the long-term goal of Turkish membership of a united Europe).
But, in the near term at least, any possible path to EU membership that includes checks on Turkey’s respect for human rights are unlikely to find any favour with the outspoken Turkish leader. After the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) moved to place Turkey back on a human rights watch list after 13 years this week, Erdogan declared that Ankara did not recognise the decision, which he said he saw as entirely political.
Ironically, it seems that the only place the Turkish opposition can now go with their complaint that the referendum result was skewed by the official decision to accept unstamped ballots at polling stations is… Europe. On April 25, Turkey's Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, rejected an appeal from main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) for an annulment of the Supreme Electoral Board’s decision to accept the unstamped voting slips. The CHP announced on April 26 that it will be taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.