– Ilke Toygür –
On April 16th Turkish citizens went to the polls, for one of the most contested referendums in the country’s history. The participation was very high, 85.43 per cent – as usual in elections in Turkey – which could be perceived as a demonstration of the democratic culture. According to the official results of this highly contested referendum, 51.4 percent voted for a “Yes” to a new presidential system compared to 48.6 percent voting “No”. As it has been stated previously , this referendum led to most important constitutional changes since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Once it is implemented, it will be the end of the parliamentarian system as we know, leading to a very powerful Presidentialism, with the lack of necessary mechanisms of checks and balances. In addition, such a historical referendum has been done after a very unfair campaigning period, according to international observers of the OSCE . All this together with the emergency state since the attempted coup of July 2016, the standards of the human rights, rule of law and functioning democracy in Turkey became open to question, according to the reports of Venice Commission , that is highlighting the downgrading in separation of powers and checks and balances after the constitutional changes are implemented. All these have been said, Turkey and the European Union mostly went back to its usual status-quo of unofficially frozen negotiations and realpolitik after a period of open critics, even if both parties are very disappointed with each other. Taking all this into consideration, this article aims to put Turkey’s relations with the West in general, European Union in particular, into perspective while underlining the necessity of a new framework for a functioning relationship in the near future.
- Turkey and its relations with the liberal West
After the Second World War, Turkey’s political elites decided to put country’s name together with the Western countries, with the aim of sole democracy, rule of law and basic freedoms for its citizens. Membership to Western institutions has been taken as a state policy. Following this decision, Turkey became a member of the Council of Europe in 1950 and a member of the NATO in 1952. In those years, Turkey was an important ally also for the United States, as a neighbouring country to the Soviet Union. Its European future, the existence of liberal order and free market economy have been supported by the US as well.
Following this track, Turkey applied for European Union membership. In 1999 the country was given the candidacy status and in 2005 accession negotiations have started. Today 16 (out of 35) chapters are opened and only one chapter is provisionally closed. This has been a very long process with its ups and downs thanks to the situation both in the EU and in Turkey. The issue of a divided Cyprus, European leaders’ strong criticism towards Turkey, naming the negotiations “open-ended” and blockage of chapters by various actors have been leading to frustration. Taking this as the main framework of relations with the European Union, Turkey experienced various disappointments since then.
The country also followed its military cooperation with the US, not only inside the framework of the NATO but also bilaterally, especially in the Middle East. So in short, candidacy in case of the European Union and advanced military cooperation in case of United States draw the lines as the main framework of Turkey’s relations with the West.  Today, these relationships are not fully functioning.
- Current state of affairs and the future of the relations
Even if the road to membership has been troubled, Turkey and the EU managed to sign Ankara Agreement for implementation of the Customs Union and it has entered into force in 1995. Today it is the most important tool to keep the relationship alive and -somewhat- functioning. The European Commission has asked for authorization to modernise the deal and to further extend the bilateral trade relations to areas such as services, public procurement and sustainable development from the European Council. However, the political environment in the EU, and especially the current tension between Turkey and Germany is making it very difficult to move on with the modernisation scenario.
Another point to underline here is the division between EU institutions. To give an example, European Parliament already recommended a “temporary freeze on EU accession talks with Turkey” in November 2016, which was mainly declined by the Council in December, since even technically it is a hard to reverse process. In the meantime, the European Commission has been on hold, working on Customs Union modernisations. The values versus interests paradox is shaping the responses of European institutions. Finally, the High Representative Mogherini stated that the framework will not be challenged, at least for now. It is clear that removing the accession framework, and suspending the accession talks, without replacing it with a credible alternative is also dangerous. However, looking for a better framework which would bring Turkey to European standards on rule of law and fundamental rights, beyond the opening of accession chapters 23 and 24, is also very much needed.
According to various official’s declarations no sharp and dramatic move is expected for redefining relations now. In the meantime, Commission officials are working for an alternative success story that is mainly focused on the modernization of the Customs Union. The reactions coming from the European Parliament and Germany will draw the roadmap in modernization. Still the question remains: Is the EU membership providing a normative anchor that encourages Turkey to follow the rule of law and basic principles of democracy? I don’t think so. For this reason, search for a better framework is still needed. As a final remark, it is not only Turkey-EU relations that require a redefinition. The argument is also valid for Turkey – US relations. After the end of the Cold War, the main determinants of this relationship is not clear either. In this changing, challenging, globalised world, Turkey needs a redefinition of its relations with the West.
Dr. Ilke Toygür. Analyst, Real Instituto Elcano.
 For “Turkey’s critical constitutional referendum: an introduction” please see: http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/wcm/connect/8eae9e52-80b2-42dd-ae27-153403ddbb04/Commentary-Toygur-Turkey-critical-constitutional-referendum-introduction.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=8eae9e52-80b2-42dd-ae27-153403ddbb04
For “From Istanbul to Madrid: five things to know before the Turkish constitutional referendum” please see: http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/commentary-toygur-istambul-madrid-turkey-constitutional-referendum
 For more information, please see Venice Commission’s report: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2017)005-e
 For a more detailed analysis of Turkey-EU-US triangle please read Nicholas Danforth and Ilke Toygür en Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2017-09-19/how-dull-turkeys-autocratic-edge