Back to old Turkish pragmatism?

Back to old Turkish pragmatism?

There was more news coming out of Ankara this week than many Western countries have in years. Some of it was good news, some of it less so. In the thick of it, I see two strands of policymaking, two tendencies in decision making that I will call HQ1 and HQ2. 

HQ1 represents the pragmatic streak running through Turkey’s republican history. HQ1 was busy this week. The Turkish-Israeli accord to restore relations was finally signed after six years of discord following the Mavi Marmara incident. Meanwhile, communication between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been reestablished to end the rift that started with the downing of the Russian jet. When ISIS suicide bombers hit Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the state also acted with calm determination. Flights were quickly resumed and order was restored.

What’s more, three Turkish ministers went to Brussels for the opening of another chapter in Turkey’s EU accession process. The chapter itself is not important, but its opening signaled that the process is still on. This is significant in the long run because the EU’s engagement with Turkey, which started in 2004, has been at the core of the Turkish economic miracle so far. It is central to how Turkey went through structural reforms and transformed itself from a struggling developing country to a mid-tech industrial economy. The EU was crucial to both the economic and political stability of Turkey at the time. 

Now Turkey needs another jump towards high-tech. It will need a renewed EU engagement process to do so. Complying with the acquis is an administrative reform process for Turkey. It should use this to implement a new set of structural reforms. The current EU-Turkey agenda of deepening the Customs Union Agreement and visa liberalization is not enough for this kind of reform. To deepen cooperation, Turkey and the EU should use the migration crisis, as they have tried to do thus far. The EU needs Turkey to be stable to protect freedom of movement within its borders, and Turkey needs the EU’s policy agenda to drive it forward. If properly leveraged, this could yield the structural reforms that Turkey needs. HQ1 has always gotten along well with the EU, and this week reminded us why it is so important.

All this could have meant that this was a good week, except that HQ2 was busy too. HQ2 is the part of Turkey that craves the short-term power rush that comes with subjugating political opponents. Its fingerprints are all over a new law regarding the reorganization of high courts that was rammed through parliament this week. Of course, Turkey needs to reform its judiciary. Its courts have long been vastly overburdened and they have never been impartial. But the law that has just passed illustrates perfectly that Turkey cannot design a credible reform process by itself. The bill is not about increasing impartiality, but rather further increasing the concentration of power. It allows the executive to pack the courts, which is nakedly in violation of the constitution. In the long run, it will destabilize the country, which is the exact opposite of what reforms are meant to do. HQ2 doesn’t like the EU very much, which was all too evident this week.

What’s more, Turkey needs investment. But both foreign and domestic investors are currently refraining from putting money into the country. The outward-to-inward direct investment ratio increased to around 34 percent as of April 2016. In December 2015, the ratio was only 30 percent. The average in 2002-2007 for outward-to-inward direct investment had been even lower at around 15 percent. This means that there is now a lot less foreign money coming into Turkey. I think HQ1’s pragmatism is aimed at addressing this and perhaps eventually even reversing it. However, HQ2 is sabotaging the country’s credibility, making it a less predictable place for investors to park their money in.

HQ1 has been lazy of late, but this week its diplomats seem to have been at work. I hope it will continue at this pace and once again sideline HQ2 in Turkey’s governance.