About a dozen years ago, way back in the days when Angela Merkel could uncomplicatedly be located on the political right, talks began on the admission of Turkey to the European Union. It was already a controversial topic (Turkey first applied for membership in 1987), and there were many voices in the European establishment – mostly, but not exclusively, from centre-right parties – that warned it might never happen or questioned whether it would be a good thing if it did.
Merkel, who first became chancellor the following month, was one of those original sceptics. So there was a nice symmetry overnight when, now running for a fourth term of office, she firmly closed the door on the prospect of Turkish membership.
In the intervening years, Merkel has become one of the leading spokespeople for the civilised, humane values that the EU is supposed to represent. It’s her opponents who are now more likely to see political mileage in fanning the flames of bigotry, and it was her challenger, Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, who in their televised debate tried to outflank her on the anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish side.
But Merkel was having none of it. She defended her record on keeping Germany’s borders open to refugees, and she was firm on the subject of Turkey: “I don’t see them ever joining and I had never believed that it would happen.” While Schulz promised that he would end the accession talks – already in limbo for the last year – Merkel said she would discuss with her EU colleagues how to do just that, and that it was just a matter of which side would shut the door first.
There was a time when supporting Turkish membership was the progressive and democratic thing to do. In the early days of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey made large strides towards meeting EU requirements and moving away from authoritarianism. But in recent years, and especially since last year’s attempted coup, that movement has gone into reverse. Erdoğan has made it clear that membership is no longer a priority and that his agenda includes things, such as the return of capital punishment, that Brussels would never accept.
The referendum in April that narrowly approved a new Turkish constitution was effectively a vote to end the project of seeking admission to Europe, at least for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps Europe has missed the boat here. There may have been a time when faster talks and a more welcoming approach could have brought Turkey on board, strengthening its voices of moderation and providing a barrier against the return of authoritarianism. Or perhaps that was always an illusion.
These are not good times on Europe’s borderlands. In their different ways, the EU’s relations with the three great semi-continental powers – Britain, Russia and Turkey – now all look like case studies in failure.
In the latter case at least, Merkel can claim to have been right all along, but it may have been more in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy.