The European Commission has rejected the surprising demand put forward by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In remarks delivered on Monday morning, Erdoğan made a direct link between Sweden’s bid to join the NATO military alliance, which his country continues to block, and Turkey’s long-standing candidacy to become a member of the European Union, which has been on an effective standstill since 2018.
“Turkey has been waiting at the door of the European Union for over 50 years now, and almost all of the NATO member countries are now members of the European Union. I am making this call to these countries that have kept Turkey waiting at the gates of the European Union for more than 50 years,” Erdoğan said, according to the Associated Press.
“Come and open the way for Turkey’s membership in the European Union. When you pave the way for Turkey, we’ll pave the way for Sweden as we did for Finland.”
The quid pro quo made instantaneous headlines as it was put forward on the eve of a two-day summit of NATO leaders in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the topic of Sweden’s application will be top-priority on the agenda.
“I support Türkiye’s ambitions to become a member of the European Union,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Vilnius, without going into a detailed assessment of Erdoğan’s comments.
The European Commission was however quick to dispel the notion that EU accession and NATO membership were somehow intertwined, insisting the two processes were “separate” and happening “in parallel.”
Although the EU institutions have worked to deepen their cooperation with NATO, whose headquarters are also located in Brussels, they are careful to avoid depicting both organisations as overlapping or complementary in any way, given that three EU countries – Ireland, Austria and Malta – defend the principle of neutrality.
“The European Union has a very structured process of enlargement, with a very, very clear set of steps that need to be taken by all candidate countries and even by those that wish to become candidate countries,” Dana Spinant, deputy chief spokesperson of the European Commission, said on Monday afternoon.
“You cannot link the two processes.”
In Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz echoed the Commission’s message and refuted Erdoğan’s attempted connection, arguing the two issues were unrelated.
“That’s why, I think, you shouldn’t see it as a coherent issue,” Scholz said.
Turkey’s ambition to become part of the EU has been a drawn-out, tortuous road, with no shortage of dramatic ups and downs.
The country first applied to join the then-called European Economic Community (EEC) back in 1987 but it was not declared a formal candidate until 1999, much to Ankara’s frustration.
The negotiating framework was adopted in 2005 and it was peppered with references to the rule of law, the bloc’s “absorption capacity,” the importance of “good neighbourly relations” and the possible suspension of talks.
In the years that followed, Turkey, under Erdoğan’s leadership, managed to open 15 of the 35 chapters that need to be completed in the enlargement process, which is notoriously intricate and laborious.
Only one chapter – science and research – has been successfully closed.
“The accession process for each candidate country is based on the merits of each country,” Dana Spinant said. “The rhythm of the next steps (…) is determined by the progress and the work done by the candidate countries in order to meet the targets or the steps that are set out.”
By comparison, NATO accession is relatively straightforward, as proven by Finland’s record-speed entrance. Sweden has met all the technical criteria to join the alliance and its bid is held-up by Turkey’s political considerations, which relate to the presence of Kurdish militants in the Nordic country.
“It’s still possible to have a positive decision on Swedish membership here in Vilnius. We don’t have any certainty, we don’t have any guarantees, but of course, now we have the momentum of the summit,” Stoltenberg said on Monday.
Meanwhile, the European Commission’s 2022 enlargement report painted a grim outlook of Turkey’s EU hopes as it raised “serious concerns on the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary,” issues that have strained EU-Turkey ties since the 2016 attempted coup d’état and the 2017 presidential referendum.
A new report is due to be published in the autumn, although no significant improvement is expected to be highlighted.