Last week's informal Council of Ministers meeting of the EU was met with growing anxiety in Turkey and in European capitals: It was the first meeting after the escalation of a verbal dispute among political leaders from both sides, after the incredible diplomatic scandal in the Netherlands. It was also after Turkey's referendum and after the decision by the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly to place Turkey under supervision on issues of democracy and the rule of law.
There was a huge outcry at the European Parliament before the informal meeting of EU Foreign Affairs ministers, asking to cancel accession negotiations with Turkey. But the EU representatives, duly influenced by Germany and France, have decided to give Turkey a kind of "time credit" for the coming weeks.
Irish minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, before the meeting made a declaration that summarized very well the reigning atmosphere among most EU states. He said: "[…] it is essential to keep the channels of communication with Turkey open. While there is no doubt that EU–Turkey relations are strained at present, the meeting provides an opportunity to focus on how best to manage this relationship going forward. I believe that the EU's relationship with Turkey should be conducted in a spirit of mutual respect through constructive, but frank discussions."
The meeting was made to see what would Turkey's attitude be, while not trying to overlook existing and important problems among the two parties. Federica Mogherini made a thorough statement, which pleased Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu and later on, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. What the EU has chosen as a stance can be summarized as "time credit." Mogherini's declaration was clear in this sense, she underlined two major points in her press conference: First, Turkey's choice of governance does not fall within the scope of action of the EU, any country is free to opt for the kind of governance its people wish, provided that it is in conformity with the universal values of democracy and human rights. The accession negotiations have not been halted, but de facto frozen and it will depend chiefly on Turkey how they will develop in future. This is a clear message: If Turkey reinstates the death penalty, there will be no more institutional ties regarding membership.
The second issue is the EU wishes to keep close ties with Turkey, which is a "relevant partner, a relevant player on many different issues. Our intention is not and will never be of doing anything that could damage Turkey or the Turkish people," said Mogherini.
The results of the referendum seem to have been accepted by the EU, with some reserves pertaining to the final report to be delivered by the OSCE-ODIHR [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe - Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights].
So this is it, a blunt warning about the basic democratic issues, coupled with admonitions regarding the implementation of the new Constitutional structure. This is not the first time the EU has refrained from burning the bridges between itself and Turkey. Even in the aftermath of the coup d'état in 1980, European countries did not suspend their relations with the military government, by giving a "time credit," for a healthy return to democracy. It is only after the dissolution of political parties in a very stupid move on the part of the military in Turkey in January 1982 that the EU decided to suspend its political relations, giving a mandate to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe to supervise and monitor the holding of democratic elections in Turkey. It took six years before a semblance of normalization came to the agenda.
If we analyze the situation with a deeper approach, it becomes obvious that the EU does not have any leverage politically speaking on Turkey. Back in 2006, when Turkey was implementing its deepest democratic reforms and changes in its history, the EU decided to suspend accession negotiations on eight chapters, in one of the most idiotic political moves European history has ever seen. Today, threatening Turkey through a totally sabotaged and useless accession strategy is at best inefficient. It is sad to say it, but a huge opportunity has been lost because some countries (wonderful examples for European integration, democracy and solidarity, like Greece and Southern Cyprus) had cold feet, or other reservations for a Turkey in Europe.
What is really at stake is the modernization of the Customs Union. This is badly needed both by Turkey and the EU, probably more by Turkey. If there are obstacles created in this domain, things may go sour very rapidly. This is the most dangerous pitfall, to be avoided at all costs by the two parties.