Why Europe can’t afford Turkey’s slide into authoritarian chaos

Why Europe can’t afford Turkey’s slide into authoritarian chaos

It wasn’t surprising to hear the conspiracy theories from the opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “The failed coup played into the hands of Erdoğan so it must have been plotted by him.” But it was surprising to see this claim, which was not backed by any empirical evidence, voiced by Western colleagues. 

The conviction among some foreign observers in Turkey is understandable to a certain degree. This is a country they love and it pains them to see it slide into an Islamic authoritarian regime. The future of their children is at stake, so their emotions and antipathy for Erdoğan outweigh rational analysis.

But what about observers in the West? What made some of them voice these unproven claims? Unfortunately, I put it down to orientalism and ignorance, which made them think the head of state in a country like Turkey could stage a false coup, consolidating his power at the expense of seeing hundreds of dead.

In their eyes, Turkey is a Middle Eastern country, just another third world banana republic. 

Following the failed coup in Turkey I have seen postings on Facebook saying things like: “Until now I tried to convince my friends abroad that Turkey is a European country, not a Middle Eastern one; I can no longer say so.”

In her article published on CNN’s website, Jenny White, a professor of Turkish studies at Stockholm University, wrote: “Until Friday afternoon, Turkey remained a competent and stable, if problematic, country that served as a buffer between Europe and the imploding Middle East and a partner for the United States. The military action, the results of which are still unclear, took Turkey out of Europe and placed it squarely in the Middle East.”

However, the fact that the coup failed proves that Turkey is not like any other Middle Eastern country, where power can change hands at gunpoint. 

Having said all this, from the earliest hours of the coup some of us predicted that it would be averted but also that it would unfortunately consolidate Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. That of course does not bode well for Turkish democracy. 

If the erosion of democracy’s main tenets - like an independent judiciary, free media, free academia and freedom of speech - which started during Erdoğan’s rule accelerates further, it is then that we will see Turkey switch to the category of Middle Eastern-type Islamic authoritarian regime. While short-sighted Turkey skeptics in Europe may rejoice over that switch, it would absolutely be against the interests of European democracies.

The refugee crisis, as well as the terrorism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has shown that Europe cannot remain immune to the implosion of the Middle East. The dialogue and cooperation that has taken place between Turkey and the EU has shown the former’s critical contribution to the security and welfare of the latter. In fact, the gains are reciprocal, since Turkey also suffers from the implosion in the Middle East. Such a win-win situation cannot continue unless Turkey remains democratic. It is delusional to think this could continue with an authoritarian Islamic regime in Turkey. 

The current cooperation is possible only because there are still a significant number of people and institutions that have endorsed universal values in Turkey. The slide into authoritarianism will erode these institutions and lead to a brain drain from Turkey. The day might come when Europe has to face a country where mobs yelling “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest) to stop tanks will not even listen to their leader. 

The EU and its member countries should give crystal clear messages that they stand with Turkey in its struggle against the Fethullah Gülen movement, which appears to be behind this coup. They should provide concrete support to substantiate this message. 

At the same time, they should be extremely vigilant about voicing criticism wherever they see undemocratic moves. They should not wait, for example, for the Turkish Parliament to start discussing the reinstitution of the death penalty. But rather than voicing threats like “Turkey cannot be a member of the EU if it brings back the death penalty,” it should use all the channels of dialogue - both state and non-state - to explain why this would not be in Turkey’s best interests.