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The EU and Turkey: Political ambitions dry out, but the money still flows

The EU and Turkey: Political ambitions dry out, but the money still flows

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7.03.2016. Turkey – European Union.

Economic ties between Turkey and the European Union go back a long way and are many. As a result, though the integration process is in a dead-end, it is nevertheless “business as usual” and money is still flowing. Is this a fool’s game?

The EU has been giving a lot of money to Turkey, particularly over the past 15 years. But is anybody willing to remind President Erdogan of this?

In the Turkish President’s opinion, €3 billion over 2 years isn’t quite enough to stop the influx of Syrian refugees on their way to the EU. His Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and him would rather have got twice that amount. Otherwise, there is no point in talking, Recep Tayyip Erdogan told European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker: “At any given time, we can open our frontiers with Greece and Bulgaria, and put the refugees on buses. (…) Then what will you do with all those refugees if there is no agreement? Are you going to kill them?” the Turkish President threatened during a meeting that was held in mid-November, the minutes of which were leaked and published on the Greek website Euro2day. A few days later, on 29th November, the EU and Ankara nevertheless formalised an agreement which indeed amounted to €3 billon over a period of 2 years. In early February, the 28 member countries adopted the agreement on this aid, thus confirming their financial commitment. But according to some European diplomatic source, the fact that “it may be necessary to pay more” should not be excluded.

2007-2020: a €10.5 billion aid

As a matter of fact, the EU already pays a lot of money to Turkey. It has been doing so for quite a few years, while roughly all along from 2003 till 2014 Turkey has enjoyed a growth rate 4 times higher than that of the EU (roughly 6%p.a. compared to 1,5%p.a.). In absolute terms, Turkey is actually Brussels’ most expensive candidate country: €10.5 billion from 2007 till 2020, as part of the pre-accession assistance funds (IPA). Among these funds, some are specifically designed to help controlling frontiers and “manage” the immigration. What’s more, the EU has already given €51 million to Turkey for the Syrian refugees.  More generally, this financial aid is designed to help Turkey reach the standards of the EU in terms of regional policies, human resources and the Common Agricultural Policy. For the 2007-2020 period, some €6billon have already been paid, while the payment of the remaining €4.5 billon will be scheduled over the coming 4 years.

“Deep coma”

But why is none of this ever mentioned? Why, in the face of his blackmailing and authoritarian swerve, is the Turkish President never reminded of the billions of euros that Brussels has paid and is still paying to Turkey? Isn’t this financial aid a paradox? It has basically remained steady all along, despite the fact that membership negotiations are in a state of “deep coma”. Big funds are still being paid to Turkey to encourage it to adhere to the “acquis communautaires”, the EU common body of law and achievements, though almost nobody believes anymore in a full membership on its part with the EU as it exists today.

I was really stunned to discover 2 totally separate worlds: that of financial cooperation and that of diplomatic negotiations – Claire Visier

A French political scientist at the University of Rennes-I, Claire Visier decided to understand this paradox. She did an investigation with a Marie-Curie grant attached to the European Institute of the Bilgi University in Istanbul. What she discovered is astonishing: EU financial aid to Turkey runs according to its own logic. It is totally autonomous from the political world, completely cut off from accession negotiations with Ankara.

I was really stunned to discover 2 totally separate worlds: that of financial cooperation and that of diplomatic negotiations. They do not communicate with each other. Turkish agents, just as their European counterparts in charge of, or working on EU funded projects sometimes do not even know which chapters are open to negotiation nor their political criteria”, explains Claire Visier.

For instance, it is not because the EU may have vetoed several chapters, that the area related to these chapters is not accepted and did not and does not receive financial aid from the EU. The same applies to the areas that Turkey refuses to broach (transports, human rights, etc.). On the other hand, it is not because an area is well advanced in terms of EU common body of law, thanks, amongst other things, to this financial aid, that it will be open to negotiations. In 2013, hardly 23% of the funding targeted projects that fitted with the fundamental points of accession negotiations.

A bureaucratic annuity

The EU often says it wants to support civil society. But the money it gives is mostly meant for the Turkish state, mostly a few ministries that monopolize projects designing. Eight ministries are in charge of nearly 82% of EU funds, only a small portion of which are kept for civil society organizations.

Even worse: “Whether Turkey proceeds with its reforms and its democratization process or not, it receives the money” reminds Claire Visier.

A few years ago, Diyarbakir former Kurdish mayor pointed out that financial aid hardly trickles down to the poorest and most destitute regions. Can one not consider that these EU funds benefitted to, and even strengthened the Islamic-conservative party AKP, the Justice and Development Party, in power since 2002, which is becoming increasingly nationalist and authoritarian?

No, one cannot quite put it like that,” answers the researcher. “First of all, one must keep in mind that there are many EU control mechanisms, both upstream of the definition of the projects, and then for the disbursements of the funds. Furthermore, my investigations show that, as far as civil society is concerned, for example, there has been no capture of funds by AKP clientele. But it is undeniable that there are administrative annuities, as some ministries (Editor’s note: for instance the ministry of environment), manage big projects that are extremely costly     

But then, as the Turkish government no longer respects the state of law and therefore does not fulfil the conditions of the Copenhagen criteria, which are an absolute prerequisite to its candidacy, why does the EU continue to turn a blind eye and hand out money? After all, following the 1980 military coup, the EU suspended the loans from the European investment bank to Turkey. It wasn’t until the Helsinki summit in 1999, when Turkey was acknowledged as a candidate country, that these funds were unblocked.

The last lever for action

According to Claire Visier, if the EU stopped its funding, it would loose one of the few levers of action, albeit minimal, on the Turkish bureaucratic/administrative and social stage. “There are Turkish ministers with whom it is possible to work, who want to make reforms and to move on”, confirms a member of the cabinet of one of the European commissioners.

A sizeable amount EU funds to Turkey are used to finance the sending of European experts or for corporate actions – Claire Visier

Not to be overlooked either, another revelation from Claire Visier’s investigation: an entire European and technocratic clientele, close to big consulting firms, has blossomed thanks to this EU financial aid to Turkey. These firms would be jobless if Brussels used the economic weapon against Turkey. “If the EU suspended such funding, it would loose a “return on investment” as a sizeable amount of the money the EU gives Turkey comes back to Europe, as it is used to finance the sending of European experts or corporate actions for companies that have their headquarters in… Europe”, explains the French researcher.

An essential partner

The EU allocates nearly half (48,2% in 2013) of its enlargement aid budget to Turkey alone.

Nevertheless, when it puts pressure on Ankara, it does so with political negotiations, with the opening or not of such or such chapter, without ever threatening to cut funds. The financial aid has “a life of its own” which does not interfere with politics.

The reason is that the use of the financial weapon against Turkey, the reduction of aid funds for the enlargement, might alienate the Turkish population and give an opportunity to President Erdogan to re-kindle his anti-Western campaign.

Yet, more than ever, Brussels and the big European capitals consider Turkey as a “key strategic partner for the EU” that must be tied to Europe. And if the  integration into the EU were to happen, this would be within one of the larger circles that would then make up Europe –not in his hardcore. All of this explains the almost skizophrenic European relation to Turkey when it comes to the enlargement aid budget.

Ariane Bonzon

Translation : Laurence Mazure

 Photo : DR

Original version in french : UE-Turquie: les ambitions politiques filent, les subventions restent (dates back to 22.02.2016)

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