What is the Future of EU-Turkey Relations? | Wilson Center
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What is the Future of EU-Turkey Relations?

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

This panel addressed a number of questions related to the April 16 Turkish constitutional referendum: Can the European-Turkish migration deal last? How might upcoming national elections in several European countries affect European ties with Turkey? What could cause the EU to freeze or end Turkey’s accession process? Is Erdogan willing to abandon Turkey’s EU membership bid or follow through with his threat to end the migration deal? Can the EU and Turkey find a way forward?

Key Quotes

Henri J. Barkey

 “Why is it that this kind of [anti-EU] attitude can take hold so quickly? What is the long-term damage being done? To me, this is very much a sign that Turkey has abandoned Europe.”

Michelle Egan

“There needs to be a credible [EU] response to the referendum. The accession criteria are built on the Copenhagen criteria, on a credible membership policy. This is about conditionality, meeting the requirements – and it’s not just sending a signal about EU credibility to Turkey, but to other applicants down the road.”

“We have to think about what to do, and I think the relationship at this point – in energy, in migration, in trade and economics – could be rather transactional.”

Aykan Erdemir

“Erdogan is a soccer player, and as a soccer player, he knows the best defense is offense. Following the referendum, on the EU front, be ready for Erdogan’s soccer tricks. That is, you will see more and more Turkish offense. I’m not just talking about Erdogan calling Germans “Nazis” or even [calling] the Dutch “Nazis.” I’m talking about a full-scale assault through government-funded NGOs, through quasi- and also state institutions… through Turkey’s support for political parties in Bulgaria and elsewhere… so you will see more of this.”

“It’s not posturing, trust me. It’s pivoting. Turkey is drifting slowly but surely, and there is a game plan. I don’t call it ‘drift’ often because it’s not a drift on its own, it’s not the winds. There is a captain and the captain is Erdogan. The captain has a clear, clear roadmap. He knows what he wants for Turkey, he knows what he wants for Turkish society, he knows what he wants for Turkish and Muslim diasporas in the EU.” 

Constanze Stelzenmueller

“The Europeans think now, and will continue to think, that it is in their and Turkey’s interest for this tipping point not to arrive in public view. In other words, we are going to spend a lot of time finessing this. And if Erdogan and his team are remotely rational actors, they will collude in this.”

“Nobody’s going to break off [the EU accession talks], because, very simply, that would push the ball, which is currently in Erdogan’s court, back into the EU’s court, and nobody’s going to do that. But they already are de-facto frozen.”


Event Summary

Three experts discussed the future of EU-Turkey relations following the April 16 Turkish constitutional referendum and how it could affect ties with the European Union going forward.

On April 24, 2017 the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center hosted an event “What is the Future of EU-Turkey Relations?” with Constanze Stelzenmuller, Inaugural Robert Bosch senior fellow on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution; Michelle Egan, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center; and Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the Turkish Parliament. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion.

Stelzenmuller addressed the question of what would happen to the EU-Turkey relationship if EU accession talks were suspended or ended. She said she did not foresee talks breaking off, but they are instead “de facto frozen.” Stelzenmuller noted that as of December 2016, there have been no ongoing negotiations and they are unlikely to restart under current conditions. In response to Turkey-NATO relations, Stelzenmuller reflected on the possibility of Turkey remaining a functioning and trustworthy member of NATO despite its recent authoritarian turn. She also referred to the upcoming national elections in some EU countries, including Germany, and their effect on EU-Turkey relations. Stelzenmuller believes the German-Turkish community is in a state of political soul-searching with where their political allegiance lies with regard to the German-Turkish relationship. Furthermore, Stelzenmuller said Germany has not done enough to promote integration of the Turkish community. She also pointed out that Turks living in Germany have been a diplomatic asset that Turkey did not understand it had, as many are leaders in German politics, culture, and art and helped shape the country.

Egan provided a European perspective on the EU-Turkey relationship and how that has been affected by the current internal crises faced by the EU, such as the refugee crisis, elections, and Brexit. Second, Egan pointed out the radical populist challenges in Europe and the impact such challenges would have on various populist elections. Third, the EU enlargement process with Turkey should not overshadow the ongoing enlargement process with other prospective member states. The last point Egan made was regarding the strategic relevance of the EU-Turkey dynamic, in terms of the security field, the energy field, and the economy. Looking to the future, Egan proposed three focal points of mutual interest: the modernization of the EU and Turkey’s customs union, the integration of energy markets on the bilateral and multilateral levels, and migration resulting from an influx of refugees and asylum seekers that puts pressure on Turkey’s domestic labor market.

Erdemir started his discussion by posing five questions: Would it be better for Turkey to be a part of the EU? What is Erdogan’s new EU game plan? Are Erdogan’s attitudes posturing or pivoting? Since the accession process is not going anywhere, is there any loss for Turkey? And, what is the root cause of the failure of Turkey’s accession? Regarding the first question, Erdemir said that it would be beneficial for Turkey to join the EU rather than stay out of it. Second, Erdemir said that Erdogan’s game plan would entail an ideological assault on Europe through the establishment of small political parties and government-funded NGOs or quasi and state institutions like DITIB—Turkey’s Islamic Union in Europe. For the third question, Erdemir said that Erdogan’s attitudes are pivoting away from the transatlantic alliance and transatlantic values. Regarding the fourth question, Erdemir believes that even though accession talks are not going anywhere, they still matter for Turkey because the EU has dividends not only for members, but for accession countries. Lastly, the root cause of Turkey’s accession failure was its inability to envision a future for the EU to include the Europeans and the Turks.

By Oumama Kabli, Middle East Program





  • Michelle Egan

    Global Fellow
    Professor and Jean Monnet Chair ad personam, School of International Service, American University
  • Aykan Erdemir

    Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Constanze Stelzenmueller

    Public Policy Scholar
    Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Trends, German Marshall Fund, Berlin; Robert Bosch Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution