The EU’s blank cheque for Turkish authoritarianism


Picture of Gönül Tol
Gönül Tol

Gönül Tol is Founding Director of the Middle East Institute’s Centre for Turkish Studies

Turkey first applied for associate membership in the European Economic Community in 1959, and Europe has ever since had the upper hand in relations with Ankara. But the EU’s relationship with Turkey has been turned upside down by the Syrian refugee crisis, and the alarm it has caused in European countries.

For decades, Turkish governments have complained about what they see as ‘EU foot-dragging’ on Turkey’s membership. The country’s long history with Brussels is full of anecdotes that justify Ankara’s frustration. After the EU opened accession negotiations with Turkey in 2005, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a ‘privileged partnership’ for Turkey instead of full membership, leading to a nationalist backlash against the EU. Later, the European Council’s refusal to open new chapters until Turkey opened its seaports and airspace to Greek Cyprus fed the perception in Ankara that the EU was deliberately using the Cyprus card to block Turkey’s accession.

The deal EU countries have in mind cannot stop the refugee flow or turn Turkey into an effective partner

These days, however, Ankara thinks that its fortunes may finally have reversed, as the EU now desperately needs Turkey. European countries are facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, and are hoping that Turkey, host to more than 2 million Syrian refugees and the key gateway into Europe, can help. European leaders are currently calling on Ankara to help stop refugees trying to reach Greece across the Aegean. In return, the EU has pledged €3 billion to Turkey to support its millions of refugees, as well as the revival of long-stalled talks on lifting visa requirements for Turks and Ankara’s bid to join the bloc.

The same German Chancellor who proposed a ‘privileged partnership’ for Turkey almost ten years ago now seems to be Turkey’s strongest advocate, and European Council President Donald Tusk is trying hard to secure Cyprus’s cooperation. To many in Europe, these negotiations with Turkey are the last hope of saving the EU’s common borders.

The lingering question is whether the deal will come at the cost of what little Turkish democracy remains

Ironically, Turkey’s liberals, who have been the strongest supporters of Turkish EU membership for decades, are not thrilled with the new rapprochement between Ankara and Brussels. The lingering question on their minds is whether the deal will come at the cost of what little Turkish democracy remains. Turkey’s EU candidacy has long served as an engine of constitutional reform and democratic transition. To fulfil the Copenhagen criteria, Turkey undertook constitutional amendments to reform the judiciary, curb the military’s power in politics and strengthen fundamental rights and freedoms.
Recently, though, Brussels has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s democratic deficit in return for Ankara’s cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees. Brussels delayed the publication of a highly-critical report on Turkey’s free speech record until after its general election in November to keep Ankara on board and EU countries have been disturbingly silent about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, which used to be of deep concern to many European countries until the refugee crisis blew up.

Sensing the EU’s desperation, Ankara is intent on extracting the most out of what the Turkish government calls a ‘win-win’ deal, which may in fact turn out to be a ‘lose-lose’ arrangement. The EU may not get what it wants from Ankara and Turkey may plunge even further into chaos and authoritarianism.

Turkey is more vulnerable to terrorism than ever

Despite the ruling party’s record of advancing Turkish democracy, the country’s authoritarian turn under President Erdogan has been severe. The media is now as constrained as it was during military rule, and pressure on journalists, including physical attacks, is still rising. An Istanbul mob that included an AKP deputy launched an assault against the daily newspaper Hürriyet. Several Turkish journalists have been fired from their newspapers for covering the clashes in Kurdish towns. In the last few months, four foreign reporters have been detained while covering the Kurdish conflict. Opposition news organisations have been raided, and some of their staff are on trial on terrorism charges. More and more court cases are being opened on the grounds of “insulting the president”. With AKP loyalists in the top posts, the judiciary has lost what little independence it ever had, becoming an instrument of the ruling party to silence and punish its political opponents.

A ceasefire between the state and the People’s Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down last July, resulting in the worst cycle of violence since the 1990s. A string of clashes in the Kurdish region between the PKK and Turkish security forces has left hundreds, including women and children, dead since then. Areas of the Kurdish region have been intermittently subject to round-the-clock curfews. In retaliation, PKK-linked groups carried out two suicide bombings in Ankara, together killing more than 100 people. Daesh has also carried out several attacks in a matter of a few months in Turkey. A bomb exploded in Suruc near the Syrian border killing at least 28 people and wounding nearly 100 more in July. In October, they killed more than 100 people in Ankara in what has been considered to be the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkey’s history. With well-established Daesh networks inside major Turkish towns, and thousands of Turkish nationalists joining the jihadi organisation, Turkey is more vulnerable to terrorism than ever.

The EU must ensure that Turkey pursues a consistent path of reform

The Turkish economy, too, is teetering on the edge due to political uncertainty, President Erdogan’s meddling in financial institutions and the government’s populist policies. An unstable and authoritarian Turkey struggling with economic hardship and security challenges cannot possibly live up to the role its EU partners are expecting. The chaos that has engulfed the country is likely to keep driving Syrian refugees to Europe. Turkey’s asylum policy further complicates efforts to keep refugees in Turkey, as refugee status is only granted to refugees taken from Europe. As a result, Syrians newly living in Turkey do not have the right to work, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian children do not have access to formal education, forcing them to risk their lives for the better chance they think Europe has to offer. The EU remains a much-needed anchor in the consolidation of Turkish democracy. But turning a blind eye to Turkey’s democratic deficit to secure its cooperation on refugees would embolden Erdogan’s authoritarianism, further destabilising the host of three million refugees and doing little to stem the refugee flow. The EU must ensure that Turkey pursues a consistent path of reform. To achieve that, the EU has to walk a fine line. It cannot maintain its current policy of giving a blank cheque to Ankara for handling refugees. Neither can it readopt its policy of opposing Turkey’s membership on cultural grounds. Instead, the EU has to communicate to Ankara that it will become a full member upon meeting the accession requirements.

The deal EU countries have in mind cannot stop the refugee flow or turn Turkey into an effective partner in confronting regional challenges. Only a Turkey that is working towards EU membership and democratic consolidation can.

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