The Chair Indicent may have been the talk of the town in Ankara, but last week’s meeting between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Europe Council President Charles Michel with the Turkish President Erdoğan was supposed to be something of a breakthrough in Turkey-EU relations, or at the very least, the first step in an eventual breakthrough. We will not waste precious characters on the details of Chair-gate (google it), especially when Turkey and its biggest trading partner face unprecedented challenges in a rapidly changing world. Suffice to say, the hermeneutic frenzy over its meaning is in itself telling: Image matters in international politics, and the image Turkey has projected to the world is not one that resonates with 21st-century values. But if we look beyond the missing chair, was this meeting the start of something new in Turkey-EU relations?
Adnan R. Khan: This putative new beginning got off to a bit of a rocky start with this issue. Is it as symbolically important an issue as everyone is making it out to be?
Ilter Turan: I’m inclined to think that it was an honest mishap in protocol. The people in charge of protocol at the presidential palace are inexperienced. If the foreign ministry’s experienced diplomats had been recruited to handle this, I think the issue would not have arisen although the EU diplomats might have tried to use the occasion to settle their own protocol battles between the Council and the commission. Unfortunately, now, the symbolic issue has received so much attention that we have forgotten to talk about the substance of what these meetings were about. It’s a distraction. I don’t know if it serves the interests of anyone, but it certainly puts the government in an awkward position, particularly in light of the fact that Turkey had announced that it was withdrawing its signature from the Istanbul Convention.
Adnan R. Khan: At the same time, there are big issues at play here. What are some of them?
Ilter Turan: Clearly, of immediate concern to the EU is the question of refugees. But there is also the renewal of the Customs Union. In addition, Turkey is insisting on the introduction of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens while the EU is insisting on the improvement of Turkey’s record on democracy and human rights. These are all, of course, interrelated matters. The EU has positioned the improvement of human rights and democracy as a pre-condition for moving forward on other matters. However, because of its immediacy, addressing the issue of refugees will likely remain outside the framework of human rights and democracy. There is no doubt that Europe has a keen interest in reaching an agreement on how to handle the refugee situation.
Adnan R. Khan: Turkey continues to promise reforms and express a desire to join the EU. To what degree is it prepared to deliver on reforms?
Ilter Turan: Apart from the rhetoric, by looking at Turkey’s behavior, one must reluctantly conclude that the Turkish government is interested in becoming a member of the EU only on its own terms. So inevitably, much of this rhetoric appears intended to legitimize the current status of the relationship but it does not necessarily constitute a goal around which policies are shaped.
Adnan R. Khan: How much do you think Europe buys into this rhetoric? It must be catching on to this little game by now?
Ilter Turan: I think Europe has its own game of trying to keep Turkey out of the EU anyhow. So, I would say that the Turkish position actually suits the EU very well. It is difficult for the EU to say that it will terminate accession negotiations, but the fact is that these negotiations are going nowhere. As it is, the EU can continue to act as if it is dealing with a neighboring state presumably with a prospect of becoming a member but in fact, when you examine the statements made by EU leaders, references to Turkey’s eventual membership are lacking.
Adnan R. Khan: But isn’t theatrics then all we’re left with?
Ilter Turan: Politics always involve a lot of theatrics. So, we should not be surprised. I would agree with you, however, that, at the moment, both sides are using rhetoric to avoid rupturing their relationship. In terms of evaluating what is actually happening, there is a wide divergence between their approaches to the content of their relationship which has increasingly acquired a transactional nature. Depending on changes in real conditions, the transactional nature might evolve into something deeper in the future.
When I say conditions may change, I am referring to the evolving world order. Increasingly, the U.S. and the EU are acting together. There is already an intensifying competition with Russia and an emerging competition with China. These do not involve only economic but also security questions. Turkey’s relations with the EU and the U.S. will inevitably be affected by what happens in this particular domain. So, the important thing at this uncertain moment is to keep talking, even if the conversation may appear and sound a bit theatrical.