Turkey: Taking the European path?

Turkey: Taking the European path?

The Turkish government has strongly denounced the July 6 vote at the European Parliament asking the European Commission to halt EU membership negotiations with Ankara.

The vote was already rather ironic, as the negotiations are really only continuing on paper anyway. It is also true that the European Parliament’s rulings are not binding for either the European Council or the European Commission. But it is nevertheless important because it reflects the mood in the Strasbourg parliament regarding Turkey. What’s more, it was the same parliament that welcomed the start of negotiations with Turkey in 2004 back when hopes were still high. 

Perhaps in order to show that the parliament’s decision would not affect their work, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn was in Turkey on the same day. Speaking to reporters, Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik made it clear that stopping the political process with Ankara but continuing cooperation in other areas like migration control or commerce was not going to happen, as it all comes in a package.

The justification for the European Parliament’s vote was the deterioration in the quality of democracy and democratic institutions in Turkey. Indeed, rights and freedoms have been restricted due to the state of emergency declared by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) right after the military coup attempt on July 15, 2016. 

The EU has long criticized President Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Parti government for jailing politicians, journalists, writers, and sacking tens and thousands of public workers through manipulated court rulings. On the very day of the European Parliament’s vote, 12 human rights defenders who were reportedly attending a seminar on “defending human rights in difficult times” were detained by Turkish police. 

Meanwhile, the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is persisting with his 450-km “justice march” from Ankara to Istanbul, accompanied by a growing crowd of supporters numbering in the tens and thousands. President Erdoğan said on July 5, the 22nd day of the march, that if it ends “peacefully” there would be no problem. This is a shift from his earlier rhetoric denouncing the march as effectively the same as the coup attempt.

Erdoğan and the AK Parti, on the other hand, are accusing the EU of sheltering the followers of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist preacher who is believed to have been behind the coup attempt. They similarly criticize EU members of tolerating the illegal activities of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while also blasting the EU for “failing to deliver its promises” to Turkey. 

Erdoğan’s relations with the EU have suffered from four major blows from the European side over the years, which have helped bring relations to their current state. 

1- In 2004, when the EU promised that the Turkish Cypriots would not suffer if they approved a U.N. reunification plan. The Turkish Cypriots duly approved the plan but the Greek Cypriots were subsequently accepted into the EU, effectively representing the Turks, despite the latters’ objections.

2- In 2005, when the EU shifted to a system of opening negotiation chapters with Turkey one by one. This was a shift from the practice until then for other candidates, with whom Brussels negotiated the chapters as a whole. The Greek Cypriots then immediately put blocks on certain chapters, including on the judiciary and freedoms, which nowadays the Turkish people need most.

3- In 2007, when French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they could not foresee Turkey becoming a full member.

4- In 2017, when the EU failed to stand by the Turkish government promptly enough against the military coup attempt.

In a sense, there is a vicious circle at work. As Turkey is pushed away by EU politicians, who despise Erdoğan’s policies, Erdoğan only becomes more distanced from the EU; when the quality of democracy in Turkey decreases further, the EU as a consequence pushes Turkey further away.

It is not meaningful at this stage to repeat the cliché that “Turkey and the EU need each other.” Of course they do. The bigger picture tells us something more relevant: Turkey and Europe simply cannot dispense with each other.

Turkey must carry on the European path and European politicians should make it easier to do so. This is in their interests too.