Tuesday, 14 May, 2024

EU commission shifting Turkey to MENA unit: Is it a political decision?

This decision taken by the commission’s Directorate-General for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (NEAR) encountered backlash from the Turkish side.

In September, the European Union Commission added Turkey to the unit that catered to the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, and changed its name to "Neighborhood South and Turkey".

The EU Commission said that it was a structural change initiated by the NEAR directorate that focuses on the enlargement process of the EU and neighbourhood policies.

According to Ana Pisonero, the NEAR spokesperson, such changes are made by considering the workload, efficiency and coherence of internal organization.

''There is no change in policy vis a vis Turkey. EU leaders have made very clear the parameters for taking forward a positive agenda for Turkey,'' Pisonero told TRT World while signing that it is an institutional step rather than a political one.

However, Turkey reacted to this development at the highest level, believing that it is an effort to put relations with Turkey into a different mould as the EU Commission is making a distinction among the candidate countries on the enlargement process.

Previously, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi signalled on preparing a step towards this direction. Turkey, on the other hand, repeatedly warned that such a step would have negative consequences, suggesting a review of this decision.

The issue was also brought up to the diplomatic table during Varhelyi's visit to Turkey on September 6-7.

In 2019, Turkey was involved in the "Strategy and Turkey" unit of the organizational chart of the NEAR General Directorate and separated from Neighbourhood South that includes countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Palestine.

Now for some, this new step is a practical reflection of the 2020 EU Enlargement report which states that ''Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union.''

The EU's approach extends to the decision of suspending Turkey's accession process which was driven by the Eastern Mediterranean row and eventually, resulted in shifting Turkey to the MENA unit.

''Turkey is a candidate country but you are aware of the Council’s position that accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing,'' said Pisonero.

EU Council President Charles Michel (R) arrives with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
EU Council President Charles Michel (R) arrives with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (POOL / Reuters)

According to Prof Dr Nursin Guney, academic at Nisantasi University, the Union at this stage does not consider Turkey-EU relations from the perspective of membership and even pretends that the accession process does not exist.

''The Union's main concern is to resolve the refugee crisis within the framework of Eastern Mediterranean and counter-terrorism efforts in the scope of its existing relations with Turkey,'' Guney told TRT World.

At this point, the dynamics and reason for this decision become essential factors to shed light on where the EU places its relations with Turkey.

What is happening behind the scenes?

According to Prof. Dr Visne Korkmaz, an academician at Nisantasi University, the EU's strategy to put the Western Balkans in a privileged position may have been influential in the Commission's action.

''Turkey's shift from the Western Balkans to another unit has a history that goes back to 2019,'' she told TRT World, stating that it should be observed together with how the EU perceives the geopolitical developments.

The Western Balkans has been a region of a power struggle for some time. Here, Russia and the US have their own means of engagement while the EU's strength, determination and financial capacity are not enough to prevent or balance these powers.

Additionally, Turkey is a significant actor with its own means of engagement in the region.

''The most effective carrot that the EU can offer to the Western Balkans in the face of all these influential actors is the membership to the EU,'' said Korkmaz.

''On the other hand, the most powerful tenet of Turkey-Western Balkans relations is the cooperation and human resources that Turkey offers to the Western Balkans in the process of joining Western institutions,'' she added while emphasizing that Turkey's NATO membership and the EU candidate status both have benefits in this respect.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen shake hands
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen shake hands (Murat Cetinmuhurdar / AP)

Thus, the EU's concern over Western Balkan countries drifting away from membership paves the way for taking such decisions to reduce other countries' influence over the region. The shifting of Turkey to another unit from the Western Balkans is one example in this regard.

The Eastern Mediterranean crisis emerges as another important dimension since Turkey, as a stakeholder, started its drilling activities in the region. Calling this action provocative, the EU froze the accession process and imposed some symbolic sanctions. Since then, the relations have become fractious.

Since Turkey will continue its drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean as stated in the latest UN Security Council meeting, it is unlikely that relations will improve soon. Furthermore, the US' non-involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean issue does not leave much of an effective instrument in the hands of the EU and member states.

''During the 2020 Leaders' Summit, the EU declared the Eastern Mediterranean as their interest area. But left the policy development to the Biden administration. So far, the Biden administration has taken steps that hinder EU strategic autonomy and vision,' Korkmaz said.'

According to Korkmaz, the EU cannot bear the burden of a real escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean, with such a lack of capacity – unless the US gets involved. Furthermore, she added, the EU cannot be a deterrent against Turkey's involvement in Libya and Syria.

''If this decision is a stick aimed at Turkey, let's say that the stick in the hands of the EU is extremely weak,'' said Korkmaz, emphasizing that the EU cannot raise its bureaucratic stick against Turkey so high that it moves the negotiations completely out of the candidacy status.

Zafer Mese, Coordinator of SETA Foundation in Berlin, draws attention to the role of some EU leaders and mainstream political parties with their anti-Turkey discourse.

Turkey has always been a country that faces controversies and questions regarding its candidacy by populist conservative and far-right political parties in certain EU countries, such as France and Austria.

''With this decision, the EU Commission serves the anti-Turkey narrative of some member states, which question the EU membership of Turkey. Even though the Commission named technical reasons for such a move, obviously the Commission’s decision seems to please the irreconcilable position of some member states and the EU Parliament,'' Mese told TRT World.

Dr Jana Jabbour, political scientist and Associate Fellow at the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, denoted the personal aspect of this decision by emphasizing the ''sofa gate'' incident, a protocol crisis during a meeting between the EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, the EU President Council Charles Michel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wears a mask as she attends a video call with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wears a mask as she attends a video call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (POOL / Reuters)

Von der Leyen was left without a chair at the meeting with the two leaders and met with backlash in Europe while Turkey was criticized by Von der Leyen. Later, it was understood that the incident occurred due to the confusion in the EU's own internal protocol arrangements.

''The decision to put Turkey under the South Neighborhood unit could be understood as a reaction to Sofa gate, by showing that the EU always has the upper hand and can decide where to place Turkey,'' Jabbour told TRT World.

How will it affect EU-Turkey relations?

According to experts, as long as this political move is not associated with the 'Privileged Partnership', it will not produce any solid concrete results in Turkey-EU relations.

''The Privileged Partnership” is a proposal that grants cooperation between the EU and a non-EU country to develop common goals without using EU membership. Yet, such a proposal is strongly rejected by Turkey.

''This (new Neighbourhood South and Turkey) unit will continue to work on Turkey's candidate membership" Guney said, adding that the important point to factor in is the EU member states' willingness to engage with the process of Turkey's accession to the bloc.

However, anti-Turkey member states may block this road.

According to Mese, an increased number of member states believe that the EU should be honest in its policy towards Turkey and the expectations should be realistic considering several member countries such as France, Austria, Greece’s anti-Turkey sentiments.

Even if Turkey meets all criteria for membership, one negative referendum would be enough to prevent the full-fledged membership of Turkey.

''Given the fact that certain EU member states will undertake a public referendum for Turkey’s accession, especially countries with negative Turkey sentiments, it won’t be sufficient enough for Turkey to become a full-fledged member,'' said Mese.

Although such decisions and positions other than “membership” damage the Turkey-EU trust and reliance, their need for each other is definite.

''In critical moments, reassuring messages become more frequent and pragmatism gain ground,'' Mese added, highlighting both parties' ability to leave political differences aside when facing a risk of destabilisation such as the 2015/2016 migration crisis.

Hence, he said, it is highly unlikely that the EU will take a major negative step towards Turkey's candidacy process.

''Considering Turkey's outstanding geostrategic importance for the security of Europe and its role as an indispensable economic partner, the most pragmatic approach of EU towards Turkey would maintain the status quo.''

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