Merkel Wants to Apply Brakes to Turkey’s EU Aspirations, As Relationship Sours

By James Carstensen | September 6, 2017 | 7:20 PM EDT

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, on September 3, 2016. (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Berlin ( – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded coolly Wednesday to calls by German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the European Union to end drawn-out accession talks, amid a growing conviction that Erdogan-ruled Turkey is not a suitable candidate for E.U. membership.

Addressing officials of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, Erdogan insisted Turkey “has complied with all its commitment,” and has not moved away from a “strategic goal of E.U. membership.”

“You’ve kept Turkey waiting,” he said in comments directed at the 28-member bloc. Any end to the accession process would amount to “hypocrisy and political immorality.”

The call for a halt after 12 years of on again-off again talks comes from arguably the most influential leader in Europe.

Although Germany alone does not have the power to end Turkey’s bid to join the E.U., Merkel told lawmakers Tuesday she would discuss with colleagues at an upcoming leaders’ summit whether to “suspend or end” the talks. The summit is scheduled for late October.

She said she wishes to “re-organize” relations between Germany and Turkey, NATO partners whose ties have become strained largely as a result of Erdogan’s crackdown on civil liberties in the aftermath of last year’s failed coup attempt.

Last week the president of the E.U.’s executive Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned that Turkey has taken “giant strides” away from Europe, with Erdogan’s post-coup behavior making membership impossible.

Juncker also remarked that he suspected Turkey wants Brussels to break off the talks, so that it could “blame” the E.U. for their failure.

Germany holds federal elections on September 24, and during a debate Sunday Merkel seemed keen to outdo her rival for the chancellorship, center-left leader Martin Schulz, who has pledged to push for an end to Turkey’s E.U. accession talks.

Merkel had previously been hesitant to endanger ties with Turkey at a time when German citizens are imprisoned there, but conceded that given the deteriorating relations, “it is clear that Turkey should not become a member of the European Union.”

“There cannot be a Turkish accession to the E.U.,” she declared, pledging to raise the issue with other E.U. leaders “so that we can end these accession talks.”

Much has changed since last year, when the E.U. promised to proceed at an “accelerated pace,” and to grant Turks visa-free travel, as part of a deal with Ankara designed to stem migrant flows.

Negotiations between Turkey and the E.U. have been underway since 2005, amid hopes in Europe that the process would anchor Turkey to democratic Western values.

But the talks, already struggling in several areas, became further strained after Erdogan’s crackdown on opponents following the failed July 15, 2016 coup bid. More than 50,000 people have been arrested, including a dozen German citizens.

Erdogan narrowly won a referendum last April granting the presidency sweeping executive powers, moving Turkey even further away from the democratic values espoused by the E.U.

The Germany-Turkey spat could extend to trade as well, as Merkel on Sunday suggested blocking talks on expanding Turkey’s existing customs union agreement with the bloc.

Turkey has been a member of the customs union since 2005, and the E.U. is today Turkey’s largest trading partner, accounting for 40 percent of the country’s trade.

Should Merkel succeed at the E.U. summit in ending accession talks and/or ending or limiting the customs union relationship, the steps could be risky for Germany, which counts more than three million residents of Turkish descent among its population.

A falling out between the two countries could also impact the refugee treaty between the E.U. and Turkey, which Merkel was instrumental in setting up. Ankara agreed to take back any migrants intercepted between Greece and Turkey, in a one-for-one exchange for Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkey who would be admitted to the E.U.

Erdogan has in the past threatened to “open the floodgates” if Brussels does not hold up its end of the deal, allowing migrants to flow into Europe unchecked. However, migration routes to Europe have shifted markedly this year from the Aegean Sea to the coast of North Africa, which may mitigate the risk.

Potential damage could also extend to Turkey’s membership in NATO, which Erdogan has threatened in the past to “review.”

Turkey has been a member of the defense alliance since 1952 and is participating in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Its relationships with several NATO partners have become prickly. Germany last July decided to move its military aircraft and roughly 250 troops involved in the anti-ISIS campaign from Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to Jordan after disagreements over visits by German lawmakers.

Ties with the U.S. have also cooled, both over Erdogan’s repression at home and Washington’s support for a Syrian Kurdish militia which Ankara considers a terror group.

Turkey also recently indicated a move towards a closer military alliance with Russia, working on a yet-to-be-finalized deal for the purchase of a S400 missile defense system from Moscow.

Closer Turkey-Russian ties would be troubling for NATO, whose relationship with Russia has soured since its military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Dmitry Shugaev, the head of Russia’s military-technical cooperation agency, told the Kommersant daily the S400 deal was almost done, dismissing U.S. concerns and saying that “Turkey is an independent state and can decide for itself.”

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