Published daily by the Lowy Institute

EU-Turkey relations: A decade of reversals

The EU’s prestige, normative standards and soft power have been relentlessly eroded by the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Photo by Unkel/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Photo by Unkel/ullstein bild via Getty Images

After the European parliament’s overwhelming vote to freeze Turkey’s EU accession process, the European Council summit that will get underway later today in Brussels will debate relations between Turkey and the EU.

For economic and strategic reasons, both the EU Council and the Turkish government want to preserve the status quo, but with every day that passes, this is becoming more difficult for the EU. Already challenged by Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and rising right-wing extremist parties, the EU’s prestige, normative standards and soft power have been relentlessly eroded by the Turkish government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The EU’s engagement with Turkey is now extremely limited and reduced to transactional relations. These are focused mainly on the Syrian refugee deal that Erdogan is using as a weapon against the EU capitals  feeling the heat from the right wing approaches to refugees, foreigners and especially Muslims.

It is startling to recall that 10 years ago there was good reason to believe Turkey would one day be an EU member, and that this prospect was supported by an overwhelming majority of Turks. Accession or membership negotiations began in December 2004, backed by the EU Council and with bipartisan support from Turkey's first AKP government. In order to deliver their economic promises, Turkey's former Islamists knew that they needed the EU process. This process and democratisation also provided a way to end the Turkish army’s power over democratically elected governments. Thus, the AKP made EU reforms a top priority.

However, the enthusiasm felt in Turkey was not shared by Northern European Christian Democrats. Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicola Sarkozy showed a systematic opposition to the membership of Turkey. Cyprus, divided between the Greek south and Turkish north for decades, also proved to be an unmovable obstacle with the Republic of Cyprus blocking the opening of 14 chapters in accession negotiations. These chapters included Justice, Freedom, Security and Judiciary Fundamental Rights and the opposition to Turkey joining the EU meant there was not enough pressure to reform these problematic areas.

AKP’s decisive victories in the 2007 presidential elections (despite the army’s interference), the 2010 constitutional amendment referendum and the 2011 general elections convinced Erdogan and the AKP elite that military and bureaucratic control was over. Thus, they felt they did not need the EU process as much as before. In 2012, the AKP proposed a presidential system to the parliament. It was rejected by the opposition but it made AKP's intentions very clear: it wanted a system without proper checks and balances. The president would rule by decree and would appoint two thirds of the top courts, effectively meaning a fusion of powers. Then, in 2013, despite rhetoric about supporting democracy, the wishes of the people, pluralism and so on, the AKP decided to violently crush peaceful protesters during the Gezi Park events. Several people were killed and hundreds injured due to police brutality.

Erdogan openly praised police and repeatedly insulted the protestors, despite the conciliatory calls from his own party. During the events, Erdogan (and the media under his control) blamed the West, the United States, EU, Germany and the lending industry (the last a reflection of Islamist paranoid conspiracy theory about the Jews), calling them the real puppeteers. He and his supporters framed the events as a result of envy. These powers, they said, did not want Turkey to have a leading role in the Muslim World. With the Gezi events, Erdogan realised that anti-Western rhetoric could not only help him to explain away his mistakes, mobilise his supporters and solidify his electoral power base. It also meant he could easily discredit the opposition as puppets of the West. Up until 2011, Erdogan had been able to mobilise supporters by attacking the Kemalists, the army, nationalists and leftists. When the power of these groups ebbed away, he channelled his dichotomous rhetoric of 'all others versus us' against Western governments. 

These developments convinced Western observers and politicians that Turkey under Erdogan’s rule was no longer a role model for the Muslim world and that the AKP did not intend to do anything more to democratise Turkey and join the EU. After the Gezi events, Turkey’s relations with the EU deteriorated. The AKP leaders felt free to insult the EU to domestic audiences and regularly explained away Turkey’s economic and political problems by referring to Western conspiracies. When the judiciary indicted four AKP ministers on corruption charges, Erdogan called this a judicial coup and another conspiracy by what he calls a 'superior mind' (the US, EU, Jews) to use its 'pawn', the Gulen Movement. He argued that because the Westernised youth used by the superior mind did not succeed in toppling him during the Gezi events, this time they decided to use their Islamic-looking pawns, the Gulenists. EU leaders, institutions and bureaucrats dithered for years on how to respond.

Since 2013, Turkey has increased its intelligence activities against Turkish dissident groups in Europe. A former advisor of Erdogan was had been detained for months for conspiring against many German citizens of Turkish origin. Under pressure from Turkey during the refugee deal negotiations, Germany released the suspect and destroyed the evidence. Turkey has also stepped up its intelligence and spying activities in many countries abroad through Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) imams. Kurds and Gulen movement supporters in Europe have been openly targeted by the Turkish diplomats and pseudo-NGOs. These dissidents have been physically attacked and their institutions have been set fire to. Turkey has demanded extradition of thousands of these dissidents claiming that they are terrorists. The European governments could not oblige since there was not concrete evidence, giving Erdogan the opportunity to claim EU countries are backing terrorists who want to overthrow his government.   

In 2016 Turkey-EU relations appeared to take a step forward, with agreement on a transactional deal on refugee resettlement. Turkey agreed to stop the Syrian refugee flood to Europe so that the EU leaders will not face electoral losses. In return, Turkey would be given a few billion Euros that would help Turkey’s fragile economy. More importantly, the EU would also be silent about Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism, censorship and terrible human rights record that was getting worse with every passing day. But this transactional and Hobbessian tranquillity did not last long.  On 15 July 2016, some military officers tried to stage a coup and about 250 civilians were killed. After this bloody and traumatic event, AKP decided to eradicate opposition and started ruling by decree. The state’s Anatolian News Agency released photos of tortured military officers in detention to teach the government’s critics a lesson. More than 100,000 civil servants were suspended, more than 40,000 people have been arrested and many journalists have been imprisoned. Hundreds of media outlets and NGOs have been shut down. Amnesty International reported concrete evidence of torture. With the increasing global criticism of Turkey’s human rights situation, the EU could not stay silent. But even the shy criticism from EU politicians and bureaucrats infuriated AKP leaders and they presented it as confirmation the West was behind the coup.

Erdoğan repeatedly stated that Turkey does not need the EU, the EU needs Turkey, and Turkey has other options such as joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He has also threatened to scrap the refugee deal. It's obvious that, for the time being, regime consolidation is the top priority for the AKP. With the help of the Nationalist Action Party, Erdogan now plans to change to constitution to create a super-executive presidency. He has shown he is willing to work with any domestic or international power that will help to consolidate his new regime in Turkey, exemplified by his U-turns on Israel and Russia. A similar U-turn should be expected in regards to the Assad regime as well.

A poll conducted last month found that while 47.4% of Turkey's people find the suspension of accession negotiations negative, 44.3% view this as a positive development. Some 58.6% of AKP voters see it as positive. It seems likely that while the AKP won't push to rupture remaining ties with the EU, if that rupturing comes from the EU, the AKP’s supporters will most probably not punish the AKP. It may even help the AKP to explain away the looming economic crisis so that it does not suffer electoral losses.

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