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European Leaders Talk Turkey
Since 2018, Turkey only comes up in EU Commission documents under the heading of the Eastern Mediterranean, treated not as a “necessary partner” but as an “adversary.” This is because the European Council, meaning the political leadership of all the countries, wanted it that way. Not anymore.
After their June 26, 2018 Summit, part of the Council’s general conclusion text read "The Council notes that Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union. Turkey's accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing and no further work towards the modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen." This meant that the Commission had no mandate to move Customs Union modernization.
The European Council met again on Thursday and Friday (June 24-25), and it looks like they are changing their tack ever so slightly, but significantly. In their latest text, there is a creative phrase that opens the door for a different kind of relationship with Turkey. The Council, it says, “takes note of the start of work at the technical level towards a mandate for the modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union.” This is not a clear mandate for the Commission to change its policy, but it is a sign for it to start “further work” with Turkey. Brilliant. If there is a will, there is a way. Not a mandate but a mandate, if you ask me.
Twenty years ago, the Customs Union with the EU has protected Turkey from East Asian competition and helped the country to transform itself into an industrial country. So much has changed since then. The EU itself is moving from being a single market to a digital single market. The old arrangements are out of date, and a modernization is long overdue. Political conditionalities have prevented even the start of talks about modernization so far. I’m glad to see that the Council is “trying” to change that.
I see three things that have changed since then. First, Trump has gone. President Biden has come out saying that “America is back.” Unlike Obama and Trump, Biden’s first visit abroad was to Europe, and included a NATO Summit. The Atlantic Alliance is adjusting to the world as it is, and the Europeans are feeling more confident than they have felt in a long time.
Second, this realignment is not only about security, but also about trade and industrial policy. Climate change is going to be the basis of this new regional trading block taking shape. At the G7 Summit, Biden reiterated his allegiance to the climate change agenda and the Paris Climate Accord. I believe that the Green New Deal on both sides of the Atlantic is the greatest realignment since the establishment of NATO back in 1949.
Third, Turkey has already been an integral part of the European economy and cannot stay out of such a great realignment. 60 percent of Turkish exports are going to G7 markets and Turkey has a structural savings deficit requiring the country to be part of US dollar markets. Neither China nor Russia can serve as replacements here. No matter how great your geopolitical realignment is, Turkey has to continue siding with its Western partners. That, I think, was also the conclusion of the Biden-Erdoğan meeting on the sidelines of the NATO Summit.
If there is a will, there is a way. I think that President Biden has seen that will in the eyes of President Erdoğan during their short one-on-one talk. Western isolation has turned Turkey into a spoiler in our region, but I think that Turkey can and will outgrow that role. Perhaps European leaders at the Council meeting felt the same way. It may be slow, and it may be very painful, but the economic, technological, geopolitical and perhaps most importantly, ecological trends all point in that direction. Political leaders ignore those forces at their own peril.