In the midst of rapid democratic backsliding and increasingly authoritarian rule, the EU is in disarray in its approach towards Turkey.
Until last year, the EU remained largely united in support of the Turkish government. Despite clear signs of the government’s monopolisation of power, breach of the rule of law and the constitution, the European Commission postponed the publication of a critical progress report after the November 2015 elections in order to secure the fragile and widely criticised refugee agreement with Turkey.
Relations started to break apart in earnest following the 15 July coup attempt, after which the EU gave only hesitant support for the Turkish government. The EU’s ‘cold’ reaction was a sign of growing anti-Erdoğan sentiment, particularly due to the threats of ‘flooding the EU with migrants’ if the EU insisted on linking visa liberalisation to the amendment of Turkey’s notorious anti-terrorism law. Yet, with strong backing from Germany, the refugee agreement was kept intact, despite several setbacks in its implementation.
In its latest progress report, the European Commission made a last-ditch attempt to pressure Turkey to moderate draconian measures taken under the state of emergency. A few days later, member state foreign ministers almost unilaterally agreed to continue negotiations with the AKP government. Despite acknowledgment by the Commission President Jean Claude Juncker and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn that Turkey’s membership remains an unrealistic objective in the foreseeable future, Juncker dismissed calls to put an end to Turkey’s accession talks.
The European Parliament’s (EP) joint motion late last week suggesting the Commission and member states should freeze Turkey’s accession negotiations has added another layer of confusion to the EU’s position on Turkey, which has long been fractured and inconsistent.
This controversial decision has riled up the government which surprised no one. But some observers argued that adopting a line of appeasement towards Ankara that is to keep accession negotiations officially open and continue cooperation on issues of mutual interest, would help progressive and liberal forces within Turkey more.
And yet those suggesting that the EU should avoid a ‘train wreck’ with Turkey fail to provide arguments as to how exactly the EU could help these democratic voices. EU collaboration with the government thus far has failed to elicit any positive results in the midst of a massive crackdown on democratically elected representatives, civil society, the media and academia.
EP decision: simply futile provocation?
Surprisingly, several long-term observers and experts of Turkish politics have expressed disappointment and disapproval of the Parliament’s decision. Carl Bildt, former Swedish Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, a long-term supporter of Turkey’s EU accession, is one of them. Following the vote on the motion, he argued on Twitter that ‘many in EP take a populist short-term rather than strategic long-term approach to relations with Turkey’.
Similarly, Carnegie Europe fellow Sinan Ülgen claimed that ‘the EU finds itself devoid of a flexible response toward Turkey’. Writing as an expert from the European Council on Foreign relations, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş also suggested that ‘both Europe and Turkey need to develop “strategic patience” to anchor Turkey to Europe.’ She justified this call by pointing out the long history of relations: ‘Turkey’s history has been an ebb and flow between Westernisation and nativist reaction. It is important for the EU to think long-term about Turkey.’
Notably, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has called on the EU ‘not to punish 80 million people just because of getting angry with a person’s [Erdoğan] words’.
Such comments not only undermine the EP’s call by implying that it is irrelevant and untimely, but they exclusively focus on Erdoğan’s indignant words and prevent the possibility of an open discussion on the systematic transformation of democratic institutions underlying Turkey’s authoritarian turn.
The likely outcome of this transformation is regime change, with the transition from parliamentary democracy to uncontrolled presidency already underway. Further, portraying the advisory call as inflexible, or worse, as collective punishment, de-contextualises the EP’s decision and indirectly confirms the Turkish government’s undiplomatic reaction.
Yet the Commission President Juncker’s dismissive statement to the Parliament’s motion was perhaps the most shocking reaction so far. He noted that “Turkey is a crucial ally, and this is not only because of the refugee crisis. Of course there is an obvious fact that Turkey has hosted more than three million refugees which Europe could not do. Therefore I demand Europe to refrain from giving lessons to Turkey on this matter”. To the surprise of many in Brussels and Turkey, Juncker effectively confessed that the EU is determined to remain complicit in the face of growing authoritarianism and human rights abuses in Turkey: “We have relations with all dictatorships because we need to help organise, to co-organise the world.”
The hesitation of the Commission and member states to take tough stance towards a pervasively authoritarian candidate country is driven by cold self-interest. Given the fear of a renewed refugee flow, and the rising appeal of anti-immigration far-right ideology at home, it would be naïve to expect a transition towards a more principled approach in the near future.
‘Strategic partnership’ with Turkey does not prioritise democratic credentials as long as the Turkish government continues patrolling the EU’s borders. It seems that as long as the death penalty is not re-introduced, the Commission and member states as the ultimate decision-makers in the EU, will avoid officially freezing accession negotiations.
The EU arrived on the world scene as a normative foreign policy actor in early 2000s. The claim of bringing a new vision to global politics through a value-laden understanding of foreign policy was set as the antithesis to the purely interest-driven foreign policy represented by the U.S. Values like pluralism, respect for human rights and the rule of law were declared the main drivers of the EU’s power in its relations with third countries. Brussels considered its enlargement policy, through which the EU engages in ‘member state building’ by transferring the governance and democratic culture of the ‘Kantian paradise’ to third countries, as the zenith of the common foreign policy.
In less than two decades, the EU’s foreign policy has failed in its objectives and credibility. Member states have come to instrumentalise European accession in line with their domestic agenda and the Commission has ‘upgraded’ the EU’s foreign policy objectives from democracy promotion abroad to interest-driven cooperation. Even the staunchest critics of the EU’s normative dream – who declared it as a naive and unattainable goal – could not have guessed that the Commission would one day openly support close relations with ‘dictatorships’ if it is in the EU’s interest.
What’s next in the EU-Turkey relations?
The Parliament’s motion is advisory and it is unlikely that the Commission or the Council will take the final decision to actually freeze negotiations. Remarks by the EU High Representative and Vice President Federica Mogherini have already signalled that the Commission is willing to keep official dialogue open with Turkey as long as capital punishment is not re-introduced, and declared that freezing accession negotiations would be a ‘lose-lose scenario’.
If there were any hopes that the EU might become more assertive with the Turkish government, they have been lost in the wake of Juncker’s statement on relations with dictatorships. Clearly the EU will not prioritise democracy and human rights in its relations with Turkey as long as the AKP continues patrolling its borders. European leaders are seemingly so enthralled with immigration control as a central strategy to keep rising far-right appeal in check at home.
However, this is a fundamentally flawed strategy for two reasons. First, the rise of far-right is a price that many EU countries pay today for years of identity politics based on the othering of migrant communities, racism and Islamophobia by mainstream politicians. Member states have long tolerated misleading media coverage of far-right violence, failed to respond when far-right figures claimed to be the voice of the silent majority, and consciously increased negative public opinion about immigration. In the post-Brexit and Trump period, the consequences of this are clear, with far-right movements flourishing based on a deliberately cultivated perception of victimhood and prevalent fear of losing white privilege among Europeans.
The bottom line is that irregular migration and the ever-worsening financial crisis are not a cause but a catalyst of far-right populist appeal. With or without cooperation from Turkey on migration, EU member states and mainstream politicians need to find an alternative strategy to counter far-right populism, away from this kind of identity politics which only serves to feed extremist and white supremacist ideas.
Second, whether the EU is tough on human rights violations and democratic backsliding in Turkey or not, the government will continue to cooperate with the EU on issues related to security and the economy in the long-term, as long as it is in Turkey’s interest to do so. While dismissing the EP’s decision, Binali Yıldırım also acknowledged ruining ties with the EU would equally damage Turkey.
The loud claim on the Turkish side that the EU needs Turkey to secure its borders from irregular migration makes us fail to see the other side of the coin: Turkey also needs the EU. Brash reactions from AKP politicians to the Parliament’s motion actually reveal that the government has reason to be alarmed.
The Turkish economy has been surrounded by a myth of growth and stability since the recovery from the 2001 crisis. The reality is the economy is now hostage to politics, adventurous foreign policy and authoritarian practices under state of emergency measures. Declining tourism revenues, slowing growth rates and a struggling currency against the dollar, as well as structural deficiencies seen through increasing unemployment, low industrial production, alarming levels of household debt and precarious labour send a strong message that the economy is far from being as resilient as claimed.
In the midst of worries over another economic crisis and with the political turmoil born from war in its neighbourhood, the EU remains a crucial trade partner as well as the largest foreign direct investor in the country. Moreover, Turkey is in the process of renegotiating its 1995 Customs Union Agreement to extend the scope beyond the manufacturing sector and to increase the volume of exports to the EU.
In short, economic cooperation with the EU remains a key priority for Turkey. Despite speculations and sometimes open declarations by the government, it is unrealistic to expect the AKP to abandon the West/ EU and pivot towards Russia. A potential alliance with Russia and severed ties with the West would only weaken Turkey in the long term.
The EU’s gamble
The EU needs to reorient its approach away from an elite-driven focus towards democratic societal voices. Accession negotiations might be essentially intergovernmental, that is the EU talks to the candidate country government responsible for initiating reforms. However, negotiations work under two conditions: (i) the candidate country government should be politically willing to undertake and implement reforms (ii) the EU should provide a clear commitment to the end goal that is full membership.
Today, both conditions are missing in EU-Turkey relations. It appears increasingly futile to expect the AKP to stop short in its destruction of the remaining democratic voices and institutions in the country. Further, it appears increasingly unlikely that Turkey will persevere in combating illegal migration and other issues of mutual interest if the EU maintains this weak and inconsistent approach.
Troublingly, the Turkish government holds a monopoly on public opinion, shaping perception of the EU membership debate according to its own political agenda. This is at least in part due to the EU’s own failure in reaching people and civil society in Turkey. Since the AKP monopolised the democratisation agenda, the EU stopped talking directly to civil society and failed to address declining public support for EU membership. This has provided an exceptional opportunity for the government to bolster anti-EU and anti-Western public opinion.
Still worse, a deeply problematic perception of the West/ EU as the antithesis to Eastern or Islamic culture has been championed by government representatives and in the government-controlled media. This has not only been used to prompt anti-Western and nationalist public opinion in Turkey, it has recently become an official foreign policy discourse. Erdoğan, in a recent address to Parliament of Pakistan, claimed that ‘today, the West supports DAESH [ISIS]. Who are targeted by these actions of the West? Let’s be careful here. This is against the Islamic world’.
Under this essentialist perception of the EU by the government, strengthening high-level intergovernmental engagement with Turkey will not change the course of AKP’s domestic conduct or make Turkey a reliable and long-term partner to cooperate with on pressing issues such as terrorism, migration and security.
There is also the need for observers and experts to avoid falling into a trap regarding Turkey and the EU’s historically crisis-laden relations. Calling for an alternative in Turkey-EU relations packaged through empty terms like soft-exit or ‘Trexit’, as recently done by several commentators in response to the EP’s suggestion, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the democratic backslide Turkey is undergoing, seeing it only in historical perspective.
Yes, Turkey has always had structural problems in its experience with democracy, particularly under the influence of the military, which has stimulated EU criticism in the past and subsequent periods of mutual distance. However, old paradigms are no longer sufficient to understand the current level of institutional and democratic erosion in Turkey. What we see now is the unprecedented and systematic destruction of formal democratic institutions by an elected government, rather than a lack of democratic institutions under a military tutelage.
In the midst of European realpolitik driving EU accession policy towards irrelevance, one institution seems finally to be taking an alternative stance. Given the European Parliament’s historical position on human rights violations and its influence on the Commission and Council’s decisions, rather than simply stirring controversy, this decision could have been viewed as a rare opportunity to start a genuine international discussion on what is going on inside Turkey.
The chance seems to be already missed. The reality is whether the EU adopts a milder stance towards the AKP and Erdoğan, the course of authoritarianisation will continue at full speed until bottom-up social contention forms in Turkey. The EU is trapped in a failed enlargement policy, misperceptions about Turkey and the viability of a refugee deal that has been slammed on legal, practical and humanitarian grounds. The EU cannot secure its borders from irregular migration and ensure security at home while liberty, freedoms and human rights are falling apart in Turkey. Thinking otherwise is a grave mistake, a mistake the dreamers of a new global role for the EU as ‘the co-organiser of the world’ are seemingly about to make.