European Union leaders are set to discuss whether to suspend Turkey's EU accession bid following calls by German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the strained relations between the bloc and Ankara.

The frosty expressions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at this February 2017 meeting are unlikely to have changed as the war of words between the two countries continued . (AA)
The frosty expressions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at this February 2017 meeting are unlikely to have changed as the war of words between the two countries continued . (AA) (AA)

Turkey’s bid to become a part of the European Union (EU) is on the verge of collapsing for the first time since negotiations for a full membership began on October 3, 2005.

EU leaders are scheduled to debate the future of Turkey’s accession to the bloc in a summit that will kick off on Thursday in Brussels. 

This follows a call by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the recent German elections to halt the accession talks.

Despite this, the two countries have strong economic relations. 

Germany is Turkey’s biggest export destination. In terms of imports to Turkey, Germany is the second country after China. 

However, political relations between the two states have reached a low ebb following a series of incidents that caused diplomatic disputes. These disputes with Germany have impacted Turkey’s relations with the EU. 

Merkel offered Turkey "privileged partnership" 

Merkel’s first official visit to Turkey was back in 2004, as Germany’s opposition leader. When she met then Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, she claimed that the EU was facing problems and couldn’t handle a new member. “We don’t have the power to accept Turkey [to the EU]. That’s why we offer Turkey a privileged partnership,” she said.

She kept her insistence of this new style of partnership, instead of accepting Turkey as a member, after she was elected as the chancellor in 2005. As the dominant country in the EU, Germany’s stance has impacted Turkey’s accession talks. 

Ten years later, right before the refugee crisis in January 2015, Merkel and then Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu held a joint press conference in Berlin. Merkel took the same stance and said: “I still have concerns on Turkey’s membership to the EU but I always supported the talks to continue.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and then Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (L) give a press conference after visiting the Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep on April 23, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and then Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (L) give a press conference after visiting the Nizip refugee camp in Gaziantep on April 23, 2016. (AFP)

Refugee deal

In the summer of 2015, after clashes escalated in Syria and Iraq, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Europe. Merkel decided to co-operate with Turkey to solve the crisis, since Turkey was the main path for refugees to Europe.

Interaction between Ankara and Berlin increased as Turkish and German officials met several times in late 2015 and during the first few months of 2016. These interactions included a meeting between Merkel and Erdogan, who had become Turkish president. 

In March 2016, Turkey and the EU states signed a landmark deal, brokered by Merkel. 

Under the deal, Turkey would accept back some vetted refugees who cross the Aegean Sea illegally to reach the Greek islands, and send the same number of refugees to European countries. In return the EU would liberalise visa rules for Turkish citizens and move forward on Turkey's EU bid. 

The deal also stated the EU would provide Turkey 6 billion euros to help the country care for more than 3 million refugees it hosts. 

However, Turkish authorities complained that the EU had failed to keep any of its commitments in terms of the deal while Ankara had fulfilled requirements of the deal. Only 700 million euros of financial aid for refugees was paid to Turkey by the EU, and the visa liberalisation never came into effect. 

For visa liberalisation, one of the EU’s conditions was that Turkey needed to amend its anti-terror law. It was a condition that Ankara rejected citing the fact that it has been combatting several terrorist organisations inside and outside the country, such as the PKK and Daesh.

Ankara has also criticised the German authorities for allowing gatherings of pro-PKK supporters, but at the same time refusing Erdogan to address Turks living in Germany. 

PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU.  

Post-July 15 era

A faster process for accession to the EU and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens were at the table following the refugee deal.

However, the relations between Ankara and Berlin suffered a setback before the German elections on September 2017. 

During campaigning both Merkel and her key rival Martin Schulz took aim at Turkey, criticising what they said were the country's “human rights” violations. 

But the real starting point of the strained relations dates back to post-failed coup of July 15 in 2016 . Erdogan said European allies, specifically Germany, showed a lack of support for Turkey.  He accused the West of “worrying for the coup plotters more than they worry for the victims.”

Following the failed coup, during which more than 250 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured, Turkey suspended more than 150,000 public workers and arrested thousands others. 

Ankara said they were members and linked to the Fetullah Terror Organisation, or FETO, which it says was behind the July 15 coup attempt. One of the names was well-known FETO-linked prosecutor, Zekeriya Oz.

During a speech in May, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Ankara expected Berlin to stand with Turkey, not FETO suspects. 

German authorities repeatedly refused the requests for extraditions of FETO suspects for trial, saying ”Ankara must first provide legal evidence” for the relevant people. 

Arrested German citizens

In the aftermath of failed coup attempt, Turkey declared a state of emergency and conducted operations against those who are allegedly linked to terrorist organisations.

People with different nationalities were also subjected to accusations of being involved with the coup plotters. These included German citizens, some of whom were journalists and members of non-governmental organisations. 

There are currently 12 German citizens in jail, including dual Turkish-German nationals, according to German foreign ministry.

Berlin several times called Ankara to release its citizens, accusing the Turkish government of suppressing its critics. 

However, Turkish authorities said their case was in the judicial process and refused to heed the calls. This added tension to the increasingly deteriorating relationship between the two countries. 

Talks on suspension of EU accession

On March, ahead of a constitutional referendum in Turkey, Turkish ministers were not allowed to address campaign rallies in Germany and the Netherlands for the "Yes" vote, citing security concerns. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likened the restrictions to "Nazism."

Chancellor Angela Merkel told Turkey to stop invoking Berlin's Nazi past in criticising cancellations of the ministers' rallies in Germany.

In July, the European Parliament in Strasbourg called for Turkey’s EU accession talks to be suspended, following the referendum that held in Turkey to change the governing system from a parliamentary to presidential system.

The resolution is non-binding, but it highlighted the gulf which has grown between the two sides.

The crisis between Berlin and Ankara has grown over Turkey’s accusation of “sheltering terrorist organisations,” while Germany has criticised Turkey over alleged human rights violations.

And the crisis deepened during campaigning ahead of the German elections, which were held on September 24. 

Accusations against Turkey was a top topic of the election. 

During a TV debate for German election on September 4, Merkel said she would seek support among the EU leaders to end Turkey’s accession negotiations, an apparent shift of her position on the matter.

Turkish officials condemned Merkel, calling for not to make Turkey’s EU bid an election campaign issue. 

However, after the election in which Merkel will have to form a coalition, the chancellor softened her tone on the matter.

Merkel, in her weekly podcast ahead of the two-day meeting in Brussels, said the EU leaders would not make any decision on ending Turkey’s EU bid. 

She said: “I want to hear the opinions of my colleagues, how they view bilateral relations with Turkey and what we can conclude from them.” 

On October 2,  Erdogan, commented on the EU leaders’ meeting. He said that “Turkey does not need the EU,” but that it would not be the side to pull the plug on the accession negotiations.

Source: TRT World