Erdogan’s push for Türkiye’s membership in the European Union was met with skepticism

Erdogan’s push for Türkiye’s membership in the European Union was met with skepticism
  • Relations between Türkiye and the European Union have been difficult over the years.
  • “The EU is in big trouble if Erdogan does not cooperate,” Maria Demetzis, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, told CNBC on Tuesday. The European Union relies on Türkiye to deal with migrants.
  • Ankara applied to join the European Union in 1987, but after several hurdles in the way, talks to join the political group froze in 2018.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kenzo Tripuillard | Afp | Getty Images

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has renewed his country’s bid to join the European Union, amid controversy over Sweden’s accession to NATO, but political experts are not fully convinced of the Turkish leader’s goals.

Erdogan surprised many on Monday by linking Sweden’s bid to join NATO to his country’s accession to the European Union. He said that European countries should “open the way” for Turkey to join the political bloc in return for Ankara’s agreement to Sweden joining the military alliance. But these are two very different operations for two very separate organizations.

“I was quite surprised he was linked to this,” Maria Demertzis, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, told CNBC on Tuesday. “You throw in a fishing net and see what you can get,” she said of Erdogan’s move.

Relations between Türkiye and the European Union have been difficult over the years. Ankara applied to join the EU back in 1987, but after several bumps in the road, talks to join the political group froze in 2018. The EU considered that Turkey was introducing too many political reforms that had already removed it “” from the bloc.

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One of the political changes that angered the European Union was the 2017 referendum that gave Erdogan more executive powers.

“He needs money,” an EU official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the matter, told CNBC Tuesday about why Erdogan is bringing up the issue again now. “All this new friendship with the West. He hasn’t changed. He wants something,” the same official added.

A spokesperson for the Turkish representative office in Brussels was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

In 2016, the European Union approved the exchange 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) in two tranches to Ankara in order to deal with the large influx of refugees. The agreement came after the European Union saw an unprecedented level of refugees at its borders.

“The European Union has a big problem if Erdogan does not cooperate,” Demirzis said. The European Union relies on Türkiye to deal with migrants.

The number of refugees arriving in the EU in 2023 is nowhere near the levels seen in 2015, at the height of the region’s migration crisis. However, with around 4 million refugees Lawmakers in Ankara, who are currently based in Turkey, still wield a great deal of negotiating power when it comes to Brussels.

“It’s more than [money]Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund think tank, told CNBC on Tuesday.

“[Erdogan] Erdogan expects a more special relationship,” Unluhisarcikli said, referring to a possible visit by the French president later this year to Turkey.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm and the institution that monitors the process of countries joining the bloc, said on Monday that it was up to Ankara to do the work required to join the political and economic group.

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“The EU has a very structured enlargement process with a very clear set of steps that all candidate countries need to take and even for those who want to become candidate countries,” a Commission spokesperson told reporters on Monday.

The same spokesman added that “the accession process of each candidate country is based on the merits of each country.”

But according to Unluhisarcikli, Erdogan may not even want EU membership. “It goes away,” he said, because this would guarantee certain unwanted actions in Turkey.

He noted that the modernization of the customs union and the liberalization of visas would be more attractive to Turkey. The first will support trade with European countries and the second will allow Turkish citizens to travel more easily in the EU.

However, it will be difficult for the EU to give Turkey significant benefits. Countries like Greece and Cyprus have historical disputes with Ankara, for example. It is also difficult for some EU countries, especially in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, to trust Erdogan given his connections to the Kremlin.

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