Op-Ed: Europe to kick the can down the road in a bid to avert a fallout with Turkey

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European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels this week and on the agenda is what to do about candidate country Turkey. They gather as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues his purge of suspected and real opponents.

Ankara and Brussels appear to be on a collision course before Christmas but a crash is likely to at least temporarily be averted. Ironically, the ticket to a normalization of EU/Turkish relations could be Erdogan's promise to hold a referendum on EU membership next year.

EU leaders seeking to avoid Erdogan's wrath

The EU's most influential leaders are understandably reluctant to throw to the wind the last strains of influence Europe still has in Ankara. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, said in late November that it would be a mistake to kill EU accession talks with Turkey.

If pushed, a slighted, even more cantankerous Erdogan could make good his threat to unleash over 3 million Syrian migrants from Turkey into southern Europe. Turkish co-operation in the fight against Islamic State and organized crime may also be restricted. Turkey's negotiators are formidable and could become even tougher to deal with on a range of issues, including Cyprus and European energy security.

The best stop-gap option for European leaders would be to confirm the current status quo: Put a break on EU membership talks. Although largely symbolic, the indefinite shelving of accession negotiations would show to Ankara that Brussels still means business while containing the risk of a full backlash by the Turkish government.

The move would not sufficiently placate the large segment of the European electorate which opposes Turkey's EU candidate status, but Brussels will have at least salvaged some credibility.

Risk of meltdown in EU/Turkish relations still persists

Formally freezing membership talks is by no means a panacea to the EU/Turkey bind, however. Erdogan is still likely to take umbrage with this decision, arguing that it conflicts with the terms of the migrant deal agreed in March.

Ankara's refusal to narrow the scope of domestic anti-terrorism and snooping legislation also means that the EU is unlikely to grant Turkish nationals visa-free travel in Europe. As with other recent bombings in Turkey, Saturday night's deadly terrorist strikes in Istanbul will not convince European leaders to accommodate the intransigence of the Turkish government. Left unresolved, this sticking point could render a carefully crafted statement by Brussels in mid-December futile as Erdogan shreds the accord.

The potential reinstatement of capital punishment in Turkey following a parliamentary vote promised by Erdogan is even more combustible. The reintroduction of the death penalty is a non-negotiable red line for Brussels which would bring accession talks to an abrupt end.

Referendum on EU membership could avert larger showdown

An increasing number of European officials hope that Turkey will extricate itself from the EU accession process without having to be pushed. President Erdogan has said that he is considering whether to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether Turkey should drop its EU accession bid. If the vote passes, Erdogan will be able to define the move as an autonomous Turkish decision to reject the EU rather than a gut-wrenching European snub.

This could make it easier to normalize relations. It could pave the way for the development of a more selective and honest strategic partnership between Europe and Turkey hinged on the migration crisis, the fight against terrorism, energy and an upgraded customs union which has long underpinned the bulk of Turkish trade.

A new partnership with Turkey could also benefit Europe's political elite. Mainstream politicians in the Netherlands, Germany and France are being sniped at by the far right in the run-up to elections next year. The less ammunition Europe's populist figures have, the better.

Forging a new strategic partnership will not be easy, however. Turkish politicians have engaged in months of vitriolic rhetoric against their European counterparts and censure from Europe has reduced to a bare minimum the appetite on both sides to build bridges. Convincing Ankara that Turkish nationals will not be granted visa-free access to Europe as part of the migrant deal will also be an incredibly tough task.

But if Turkey and the EU are able to navigate through this minefield and come to a mutually acceptable agreement, the benefits would be immense.

Anthony Skinner is a director at political risk advisory company Verisk Maplecroft

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