Europe’s poker over Turkey

Europe’s poker over Turkey

As a part of group of journalists and academics, I have spent the past week in Germany as a guest of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which has close ties to the Free Democrat Party. One big headline that emerged from the trip is that Europe has learned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s game and is eager to play it. Before coming to Hamburg and Berlin, we were expecting support for freedom of the press and expression from our German friends. Instead, most of what we heard was the “geopolitical importance of Turkey.”

The bright side of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) crisis is that it has put Turkey on the map of ordinary Europeans again. Germans are following the events in Mürşitpınar and Suruç even more closely than Turkey’s own citizens. Der Spiegel’s cover story about ISIL featured six reporters, two from the field. Not a single day passes without a front-page story in the German papers about Turkey joining the coalition to fight ISIL.

With all this, Turkey’s domestic worries go backstage. Europe wants to view Turkey as it saw it when it was the Cold War’s last frontier against communism: A solid NATO ally, a not-so-democratic-but-who-cares-anyway kind of neighbor.

But there is always a flip side to this story. Dr. Günter Seufert from Germany’s influential think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWF) believes that it is actually the right time to open up more negotiation chapters for Turkey's EU accession process. However, Seufert also said during a meeting with us that "we know Erdoğan does not want Turkey to be a member of the EU.”

“Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Volkan Bozkır, Ali Babacan, all of these names have very favorable ratings in Brussels, Berlin, etc. But when you look at the party program, or the Cabinet program, you see very little about the EU reform process. So just in order to challenge Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to do more, the EU should open two new chapters for negotiation,” he said.

Seufert’s proposal was to open the chapters on judicial reform and freedom of expression. He also said no EU member could or would drag its feet to stop Turkey’s membership talks anymore.

According to most German experts, Turkey’s military power, for all the country's shortcomings, makes it a dependable fortress to keep ISIL at bay. Turkey is also taking in millions of refugees, thus helping Europe not to take any. However, this dilemma also lowers the chances for Turkey's possible eventual accession.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), as well as Erdoğan personally, has played the EU game in a very clever way, by adapting a softer approach in European capitals while bashing all Western leaders on the domestic scene. Ironically, the EU capitals have learned the game well and are now using it against Turkey. In closed meetings, they support the intelligentsia that is pushing for reform, but in public they almost appear to cherish the AK Party’s anti-democratic laws.

In a huge U-turn compared to a couple of months ago, most German politicians and experts have now refrained from openly criticizing Erdoğan. “Despite all the corruption charges, all the anti-democratic practices, you still go and elect him,” one said. “After Gezi, he won two more elections. So we look and say, why worry for Turks if they are happy with this guy? It is their problem. We look at Turkey like Putin’s Russia. Big, important but never a member of the EU.”

So once again, we - the supporters of a more secular, more pro-Europe, more democratic Turkey - are left in the dark with our dignified loneliness. The people who we are trying to reach for a better Turkey are simply too busy or no longer there.