Standing on a podium with Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu welcomed the deal between Ankara and the European Union last Friday as “historic”, remarking that "We today realised that Turkey and the EU have the same destiny, the same challenges, and the same future."
Davutoğlu had reason to be pleased, since he and his team had worked hard to convince European leaders to “re-energise” Turkey’s long-drawn membership bid at the cost of stemming the flow of refugees to Europe.
While the deal promises an initial €3 billion in aid to Turkey, its real attraction lies in the promise of rekindling the embers of Turkey’s membership bid with Europe. Promises of visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens and the opening of a new chapter in accession talks have been hailed as major victories by the Turkish government. If there is progress in talks with Cyprus later this spring, Turkish-EU relations will deeper further, with additional chapters being opened.
[The deal's] real attraction lies in the promise of rekindling the embers of Turkey’s membership bid with Europe
In many ways this deal marks an end to Turkey’s isolation in the international arena. For the last few years Turkey has endured volatility in its relations with the Obama administration and suffered the deterioration of ties with Russia and Middle Eastern neighbours because of the conflict in Syria. For about three to four years, up until the end of 2015, Ankara had largely been excluded from the European debate. But everything changed when the refugee crisis hit the Aegean shores and German Chancellor Angela Merkel started regarding Turkey as the key ally to handle the crisis. The recent deal represents the culmination of Turko-German rapprochement, which, surprisingly, enticed Ankara to once again entertain a pro-European orientation for the time being, if not also for the future.
But while this may all sound like good news for Turkey, serious hurdles remain before it is placed back on the EU’s enlargement map.
First off, there are the byzantine corridors of power in Ankara to consider. While the deal inevitably elevates the stature of Turkish premier as the primary interlocutor in Turkish-EU relations, President Tayyip Erdoğan’s outlook still remains unclear. Observers note that it would be unthinkable for Davutoğlu not to have consulted with Turkey’s strongman before heading off to Brussels to deliver the handshake last week. But in public speeches all week, before and after the summit, Erdoğan continued to lash out at Europe and European attitudes towards refugees in terms so harsh that they echoed in the Brussels negotiating chambers.
Just as Davutoğlu tried to finalise the deal on March 18, Erdoğan accused Europe of "surrendering to terror" and “dancing in a minefield” for allowing a Kurdish protest tent to be set up outside the EU building in Brussels, which was sympathetic to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Erdoğan increasingly finds comfort in an anti-Western and nationalist narrative and lashed out at European states for having taken in only a "handful" of refugees, for being “dishonest” or being sympathetic to the PKK/terrorists: “They are asking why the president is talking like this. What should I do? As long as you continue to not be honest, I will talk like this. […] The West had declared a national mobilisation to show terrorists with bloodied hands as nice kids”, referring to the Kurdish activists in Brussels.
The worry is that if Turkish politics hits another volatile patch, bashing the EU deal could become a popular rhetorical tool in an election cycle
While Erdoğan has not specifically reprimanded the deal itself, his dismissive tone has European diplomats worrying about the longevity of his personal commitment to readmission. Pro-Erdoğan dailies didn’t hail the EU accord as a major victory in the way that other pro-government outlets did. Indeed, the pro-Erdoğan newspaper the Star came out with the headline “Terrorist Belgium” on Tuesday, tragically coinciding with the devastating ISIS attacks in Brussels. The worry is that if Turkish politics hits another volatile patch, bashing the EU deal – especially aspects of it like visa liberalisation, the 72,000 cap for resettlement in Europe, or the vague language about opening new accession chapters – could become a popular rhetorical tool in an election cycle.
Visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens will be a particularly thorny issue over the next few months. Since this is the most appealing part of the deal for the Turkish public, expectations are already running high for visa-free travel in the Schengen zone starting from June. The political reality in European capitals, on the other hand, is very different. Despite Davutoğlu’s best efforts, overcoming domestic opposition in the Schengen zone, especially after the Belgium attacks, might prove to be tougher than European bureaucrats are willing to acknowledge.