“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight, the European Union has opened its door to Turkey,” European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said at a news conference in December 2004. “It shows clearly the end goal: The end goal is membership.”

That was the optimism in 2004. After years of difficult reforms and after decades waiting at the EU’s doorstep, Turkey was finally invited to join the exclusive club of democracies. Or, at least, to start the process – which some hoped would never actually lead to full membership. The assumption was that by giving the perspective, the Turkish government would be given sufficient incentive to keep up the impressive pace of reforms.

That strategy bitterly failed. The mood in 2017 has changed completely. And so has Turkey. The constitutional changes that will abolish the separation of powers are the nail in the coffin of Turkey’s fragile democracy.

While Turkey has been seriously backsliding in human rights and democracy in past years, last summer’s coup attempt triggered the acceleration of the massive crackdown on all critics of the government. Under the state of emergency, hundreds of thousands of families have been affected.

In today’s Turkey, it is not safe to be an opposition politician, journalist, mayor, judge, prosecutor, academic scholar, human rights defender, a critical social media user or even a world famous football player. All can be accused of being supporters of terrorist organisations – and no court in the country where the defendants can have their voices heard.

Accession talks are conducted with governments. And the one currently in power in Ankara is proving on a daily basis that it has no appetite whatsoever to move closer to meeting the EU’s criteria. With the new constitution, Turkey cannot become a member of the European Union. Continuing to talk about integration is not only a farce, it touches upon the credibility of the Union itself.

Yet, still there is hope. Despite all the repression and the unfair electoral environment, half of the population said ‘NO’ to the direction the government is taking their country. Half of the population showed they do share the same values as many of their counterparts inside the EU. Shutting the door in their face would be the worst thing Brussels could do now.

The EU’s enlargement tool has always been praised for its transformative power. With Turkey it failed, as the EU wasn’t willing to use all the instruments it had at its disposal to promote reforms, like opening negotiation chapters dealing with fundamental rights and the rule of law. For a candidate country, there are red lines which cannot be crossed without consequences. Suspension of the accession talks is the only correct political message EU leaders must give now. But at the same time, much more support should be given to Turkey’s democrats. Redirecting the annual 600 million euros pre-accession funds to support civil society would be an important signal.

Should we stop all cooperation with Turkey? No, Turkey will continue to be an important neighbour and we have many joint interests. However, moving to a solely pragmatic, transactional relationship would be leaving a large part of Turkey’s population out in the cold. Therefore, we have to regain political leverage. One opportunity arises with the customs union. Ankara is keen on upgrading and expanding it, as its economy has taken serious blows. I’m in favour of such cooperation, as long as it goes hand in hand with clear political benchmarks.

Time has come for the EU to make a strategy on how it wants to support Turkey’s democratic forces. Currently, it seems like EU leaders are just waiting for the other side to pull the plug first as they don’t want to risk the collapse of the refugee deal struck with Ankara a year ago. This is not a sustainable solution. The EU deserves better and so do democrats in Turkey.

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