German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Ankara isn’t likely to significantly speed talks over Turkey’s accession to the European Union. But there might be an alternative to produce some movement in the meantime.

Stall in Turkey’s EU Accession Talks Calls for Alternative Approach

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Ankara this week provided some reassurance that stalled European Union accession negotiations with Turkey might resume, but even if that happens, they’re likely to continue the halting pattern characteristic of the talks since they began in 2005. The public skepticism of the process held by EU members and Turkey alike risks poisoning that relationship as well as other connective tissue, such as ties between the U.S. and Turkey and the vital role that leaders in Ankara play in the volatile Middle East.

A possible solution that might bolster support on all sides would be to tackle one of the issues central to Turkey’s EU accession – human rights – through a Track 1.5 process. Such an approach could provide a more productive way to maintain these critical partnerships while addressing a contentious issue.

A Track 1.5 process occurs with a careful mix of government and non-government representatives engaged in policy-oriented dialogue to discuss issues of mutual concern. The goal is to generate nascent policy proposals that can be quickly put into operation. While most policy proposals are directly fed into official talks -- the Track 1 form of discussions -- the Chatham House Rule of non-attribution is observed for a certain degree of confidentiality to facilitate participants writing internal policy memos back to their respective governments. USIP has facilitated track 1.5 engagement on a range of issues, including nuclear security in the Korean Peninsula and South Asia.

Turkey is a key security and economic partner to both the EU and the U.S. As an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey serves as an important interlocutor between the East and the West. With a rapidly growing economy, a location central to European energy supply chains, and a regional presence essential to stabilizing Syria, Turkey’s ties with the U.S. and the EU are critical.

Reports in the past year highlighting Turkey’s poor human rights record against journalists and other Kurdish sympathizers have strained relationships and added another strike against Turkey’s proposed accession in European public opinion. Government leaders on all sides tend to avoid the subject because the imperative right now is on Turkey’s role as an intermediary in the Middle East, so that makes Track 1 talks unlikely to be productive.

And Track 2 discussions, characterized as unofficial talks between various experts who engage in academic style conferences with paper presenters and discussants, wouldn’t be effective enough because improvements ultimately are the official responsibility of the Turkish government. Without some progress on resolving these issues that hamper Turkey’s EU accession bid, waning enthusiasm on both sides of the partnership may derail the process entirely.

The degree of public enthusiasm in Turkey is already mixed, and stands lower than the starting point of support found in Croatia before it ultimately began its pre-accession reforms. A 2012 poll conducted by the German-Turkish Foundation for Education and Scientific Research, TAVAK, revealed that only 17% of respondents agreed that “Turkey will become an EU member.” Eurobarameter polls reflect a similar overall decline in Turkish support of membership. To push enlargement prematurely on a country that does not itself fully believe that it belongs in Europe could destroy any currently held leverage and instead push Turkey away.

A poll conducted by the German newspaper Bild in advance of Merkel’s visit revealed that just 3 in 10 Germans favored Turkish entry into the EU. The low levels of support in the two countries reflects the difficult process.

Merkel has been vocal about the remaining challenges to accession. During this week’s visit, she bluntly expressed skepticism and stated the talks were “open-ended”, even as she advocated for opening a new chapter in the talks. As an undisputed leader in the EU, her support to the process is key.

And with roughly 2.5 million Turkish immigrants residing in Germany, and Germany’s role as Turkey's biggest trade partner, the two countries’ futures clearly are intertwined. So a productive process for resolving some of the thorniest issues that keep them apart ultimately could strengthen their relationship and the prospects for accession.

Do you see “Track 1.5” talks on Turkey’s human rights record as a possible way of making some progress on accession? Tell us why or why not by submitting a comment below.

Hanne Bursch is a USIP program assistant with a personal focus on Turkey. She holds a master’s degree in European studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service where she concentrated on issues related to the Balkans.

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