Summit viewed as a win for Europe, but concerns linger over Turkish accession in hostile France
Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the French discussion in the aftermath of the Brussels summit between the EU and Turkey did not focus on whether Europe had sold out to Ankara in the context of a worrying authoritarian drive under the Erdogan government. Rather it revolved around the prospect of EU accession for Turkey and, in spite of this issue’s sensitivity in the French political debate, it was a more sober discussion than one would have expected.
Turkey and its relations with the EU have been an issue for more than a decade in France. It has divided both sides of the political landscape and has been a hot potato in various electoral campaigns. It has eventually morphed into a strong opposition by the French public to such an accession: polls have pointed to figures up to over 80 percent of opposition, among the highest levels within the EU.
In this context, one could have expected political uproar after last week’s summit and its outcome, especially with local elections scheduled for 6 and 13 December. And yet, there was nothing of the sort. In part, bigger news has overshadowed this topic, with France preparing for the opening of COP21, and still very much overwhelmed by the post-Paris attacks debate about how best to fight terrorism. But that is not the whole story.
The opposition party made clear that it disapproved of the apparent new impetus to Turkey’s adhesion process. According to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, letting Turkey believe it has any chance to become a member state is a fault, because it is a lie. Already before the summit, former Prime Minister François Fillon had pressed his successor Manuel Valls about Germany’s initiatives vis-à-vis Turkey. He explicitly criticised the idea that, to make up for its error of opening Europe’s doors to refugees, it was wise for Germany to haggle for Turkey’s support. And he asked the government to clarify its position on this German initiative.
And yet, those criticisms did not give way to major political bickering. Sarkozy himself nuanced his position, insisting that, in the context of the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), France needs to be on speaking terms with Turkey. And he aimed at the European Commission and avoided criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or even the French government.
In Parliament, the government gave its version of the summit. For France, which enjoys an excellent bilateral relation with Ankara these days, Turkey is a strategic partner, both for France and the EU. This is obviously even more the case in the context of French efforts to close ranks against ISIS. Yet, the government insists that there was no blank cheque signed off to Turkey. The €3 billion is meant for refugees, not for Ankara, and its disbursement was conditional on Turkey fulfilling its commitments. And there can’t be any “accession blackmail”, because conditions for accession remain unmodified. In any case, Prime Minister Valls confirmed that any new accession decision would be subject to a referendum, in accordance with a constitutional provision that was adopted under the previous legislature (which had Turkey very much in mind).
In private, French officials add that the same applies to the visa exemption horizon. It would take major reforms for Turkey to meet the unrevised criteria, including sensitive ones such as the absence of discrimination vis-à-vis Cyprus. They note that even if Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoğlu called the day “historic”, its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not overplay the summit’s outcome. They also stress that France did not endorse Germany’s plan toward Turkey, but its president did not see a reason for objecting to his German counterpart’s initiative, all the more given he understands where she comes from, given the magnitude of the refugee crisis in Germany.
In a nutshell, the French political class, as well as experts and the media, seem convinced that the summit did provided no shortcut, nor would it result in any substantial bargaining in terms of Turkey’s accession.
This being ensured, France’s priority was and remains to create the best conditions for the Syrian refugees to be hosted in neighbouring countries to the utmost extent possible, by improving conditions for refugees there, by strengthening the fight against traffickers, and by tightening border control. In this regard, from the French perspective, the Brussels summit’s outcome will require some strong follow-up by Ankara to abide by its commitment. But it was a step in the right direction, without having to pay too high a price, especially in terms of shifting the relation between Turkey and the EU.