Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Enlargement is Europe’s eternal question and it is the biggest, most effective step the European Union can take to strengthen its geopolitical influence, allowing another country in. It is also the most difficult step to take: an unprepared or unwilling country can never be given a seat at the EU table, at risk of gravely damaging the European project as such.
The pros and cons of enlargement regularly raise their head, as we saw in recent weeks: when Orbán takes yet another turn away from European rules and values, when Poland risks following the same route when Ukraine fights for its own European future, or when Turkey’s partnership with Europe again raises the big questions: when, how and how far do we redraw Europe’s borders?
Leverage is key: in the past, the road to EU membership has proved a tremendous spur to bring a country closer to liberal-democratic values and institutions, as well as to the prosperity of all involved. It makes us all stronger. Just imagine where Putin’s tanks would have been today, if Europe hadn’t undertaken its biggest enlargement operation ever, two decades ago?
But with liberal-democracy waning world-wide and under pressure within Europe, that leverage is less certain than before. The intensive enlargement process needs to be underpinned with political will on both sides. It only works because it is difficult.
With Turkey, the magic isn’t working.
Accession discussions have effectively come to a standstill, and in its latest report on the Commission’s progress report on Turkey the European Parliament again finds that the country is moving further and further away from European norms of liberal-democracy and from integration with the EU as such. By refusing to implement the binding rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of unlawfully detained rights activist Osman Kavala, the Turkish government made it clear that it is uninterested in the rule of law. It is only natural that the European Parliament wants to keep the doors shut on Turkish membership. Many still believe the process of membership talks is the least-bad option to regain leverage over Turkey. Experience certainly shows that any accession country needs to be very well adjusted and fully committed before joining.
I would personally go even further, drop the charade of accession in any near future and instead openly go for another type of association between the two partners.
Under its current government, the country will not move closer to Europe in any meaningful way: it has sought conflict with Greece, challenged Cyprus’ sovereignty in drilling disputes, proved a problematic ally within NATO over Sweden and Finland’s membership bids, and is increasingly blunt in stifling internal political opposition. This is not a European country, not should we continue to pretend it truly wants to be.
And yet, we do need to keep an open line to Ankara. Turkey remains a bridge to the Middle East and the Muslim world more generally, a key NATO member, and no one wants to see it undermine our sanctions on Russia or become a haven for its oligarchs. We need a new partnership with Turkey, less naive and less ambitious than membership, but more effective in its realism. 2023 is an election year for Turkey, so who knows what could improve if Europe is more open about future prospects than it is now. Hilde Vautmans is a Belgian Member of the European Parliament, member of the Renew Europe Group and the Renew Europe Group’s coordinator in the committee on foreign affairs (AFET).