Turkey will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May. Luigi Scazzieri writes that with incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan facing a battle to hold on to power, the results of the election look set to define the future relationship between the EU and Turkey.
Turkey is one of the EU’s largest and most strategically important neighbours, a NATO member and a candidate for EU membership. Its presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for 14 May, will determine whether President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains in power and in control of Turkey’s relations with Europe.
The EU-Turkey relationship has been stuck in a downward spiral for well over a decade. Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, which started in 2005, quickly stalled due to the reticence of many member states about Turkish membership and the failure to solve the dispute over the division of Cyprus. The continuing erosion of democratic freedoms in Turkey, especially after the 2016 coup attempt, is a major source of friction that prevents Ankara’s accession negotiations from moving forward and hinders cooperation in many other areas.
There have also been a plethora of foreign policy disputes between Ankara and EU countries. Erdoğan has pursued an increasingly assertive and militarised foreign policy that many Europeans see as threatening and antagonistic. Turkey has sought to advance a two-state solution in Cyprus, going against the UN-backed solution of a federal state. Ankara has claimed a large exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean, and has sent ships close to Cyprus and several Greek islands to back up its claims. Turkey’s relatively friendly relations with Russia and its veto on Sweden’s NATO membership bid have further soured the mood towards Ankara in many European capitals.
Yet, despite the many sources of friction, Turkey and the EU remain key trading partners and have continued to work together on issues such as climate, health, migration and supporting Ukraine’s resistance against Putin’s aggression. But the poor state of relations has made many areas of cooperation more difficult. For example, in the field of migration, there has been very little cooperation at the EU-Turkey border since 2020, and cooperation is essentially limited to the EU providing funding to support the nearly four million refugees in Turkey.
The 2023 election
If Erdoğan remains in power after the upcoming election, the potential for turbulence in relations with Europe would be high. The election itself could be a major source of friction if there is evidence of large-scale vote-rigging by the government, or if Erdoğan loses but refuses to leave office. Even if that does not happen and he wins fair and square, the major sources of EU-Turkey friction would almost certainly endure.
The EU and Turkey would still be pushed to work together on issues of mutual interest, but any cooperation would be highly transactional, and Turkey could drift further from the West. Barring a rupture, the EU’s preference will be to keep the membership talks alive. However, if Erdoğan loses the election but refuses to leave office or if democracy in Turkey erodes much further, there will be increasingly loud calls to formally end Ankara’s EU accession bid.
If the opposition alliance, led by Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wins, there would be substantial changes in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. The opposition wants to change the constitution to a parliamentary system, restore judicial independence and improve relations with the US and the EU. Opposition parties have been critical of the militarised and interventionist foreign policy pursued by Erdoğan and want to build better relations with the West and prioritise diplomacy in resolving disputes like those with Greece and Cyprus.
Pushing the reset button
An opposition victory would offer a big opportunity to relaunch EU-Turkey relations – although it is unrealistic to think that all sources of friction would disappear. The EU would be wise to intensify dialogue across all policy areas if this happens and seek to stabilise the new government by helping it navigate economic difficulties. In the medium term, a realistic target would be for the EU and Turkey to negotiate the long-planned upgrade to their customs union.
That will not be easy. Member states will not agree to start talks unless the new government shows that it is serious about improving democratic freedoms, reducing tensions with Greece and Cyprus, and addressing the existing customs union-related trade frictions with the EU. However, a new era in EU-Turkey relations could be within reach if both sides invested political energy in overcoming their differences.
This upgrade process could reinject momentum into efforts to resolve the many Greek-Turkish disagreements and the Cyprus dispute. And, if all member states agreed, an upgrade might also pave the way for the resumption of Turkey’s membership negotiations. Even if that proved impossible, Turkey would be well placed to benefit from the rethinking of the accession process sparked by Ukraine’s bid for membership. The EU is shifting towards a ‘phased’ approach to membership which would allow greater integration of candidate countries before membership.
Whatever the outcome of the election, Turkey and the EU will remain neighbours and have shared challenges to address. But the results of the contest on 14 May will define the balance between cooperation and confrontation for years to come.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union