Brexit may be a good thing for Turkey

Turkey’s EU membership journey has always been cumbersome and contentious. It elicits impassioned reactions from both opponents and proponents. The novelty is that Turkey’s EU membership process has now long since been decoupled from its relations with Europe.

But while the British exit from the European Union looks set to further derail Turkey’s EU membership bid, which is already in a shambles, a Brexit may well end up as a boon for Turkey’s bilateral relations with individual European countries. This should create incentives for Turkey and the EU to begin to contemplate on an alternative arrangement between themselves to overcome the anxieties and expectation created by long defunct and largely illusory membership process.

A British exit from the EU can potentially produce two types of responses. First, a crisis-stricken EU may become more inward-looking and lose its appetite for enlargement altogether, let alone allowing Turkey in.

Second, inspired by the history of the European integration, the EU may try to overcome this crisis by going for deeper integration, resulting in an ever-closer union.

In this case, the identity and political culture will matter more for any prospective member country.

In this scenario, the distance between the EU and a Muslim Turkey with a different political culture and troubled democratic credentials will only be widened.

Major mistake

This is not the whole story. One of the major mistakes that experts make is that they treat Turkey’s path to EU membership and – the country’s relations with Europe as identical.

For a long time, Turkey and Europe also treated these relations as practically the same thing. But this is no longer the case.

The decoupling has become palpable in recent months, and looks set to continue. Moreover, a British exit from the EU will affect these two tracks very differently.

As argued above, while Turkey’s EU membership bid lacks momentum, and would further stall in the aftermath of the Brexit, Turkey’s relations with Europe are experiencing a revival, and appear to offer a relatively promising future.

The Syrian refugee crisis, a growing tide of radicalismthe collapsing regional order in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Russian defiance of NATO are driving Turkey and Europe to closer cooperation. This trends seems likely to continue. 

As it is realpolitik considerations rather than shared values, these relations can no longer serve as an anchor for Turkey’s democratization process, as the EU membership process had done for Turkey between 2002-2007. 

This is an unfortunate outgrowth of the decoupling of Turkey’s EU membership bid and its European relations. 

Putting this adverse side-effect to one side, Brexit is likely to enhance Turkey-European relations. 

Britain and the EU have intricate and mutually beneficial economic ties, which will encourage both sides to come up with a new arrangement to lessen the negative consequences of the departure.

Rash decisions

Unlike the hasty calls made earlier by EU officials and member states for a speedy exit by Britain, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on the remaining 27 member states not to make any rash decisions and to consider the EU’s future path in the context of Brexit  rationally. 

With the passage of time, this is likely to be the tone defining future British-EU relationships.

Here Turkey can set a precedent as a member of the customs union with the EU

Turkey aims to upgrade the status of this agreement to cover agricultural products and services, besides industrial products. If this materialises, it may set a precedent for the UK to seek a customs union arrangement with the EU that includes provisions for its world-renowned financial industry and services.

In return, Britain’s new arrangement with EU could inspire Turkey to seek, or at least be content with, a new type of arrangement with the EU, falling short of full membership. Such a search for an alternative arrangement is not new. 

In fact, when Turkey’s membership hope was high in 2004-2005, Merkel, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union Party leader of the time and French Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, proposeda “privileged partnership” as an alternative to membership. 

This proposal lacked substance. Turkey regarded it as offering neither privilege nor partnership, only stifling the membership prospect. Moreover, Turkey feared it would reduce it to a second-class status in the European system.

Turkey rejected this proposal. The resistance to it thus incorporated both political and psychological aspects.

It is, therefore, long overdue for Turkey and EU to focus on what can work for both of them, a new model of partnership, instead of squabbling over what is untenable …

With the benefit of hindsight, Turkey might have been right to refuse the fuzzy and shallow content of the offer, but not the idea of it. Turkey’s EU membership process is going nowhere. Turkey has thus far opened 16 chapters, provisionally closing only one, out of the 35 chapters that any candidate country needs to complete.

It is, therefore, long overdue for Turkey and EU to focus on what can work for both of them, a new model of partnership, instead of squabbling over what is untenable, full membership. The prospective model of British-EU relations can show the way out. 

A British special status with the EU would help overcome Turkey’s psychological resistance to such measures, as these arrangements would no longer be seen as reducing Turkey to second-class status in the European system, and would, therefore, be more acceptable to Turkey’s political elite and general public. 

Brexit has put the European integration process through one of its most daunting tests. But not all the repercussions of Brexit are adverse, at least not for everyone. If Turkey can show political dexterity and seize the opportunity, Brexit will open up new opportunities for the country to exploit.

Galip Dalay is a senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, and research director at Al Sharq Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera

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