Who will blink first, Turkey or Europe?
The problematic relationship between Turkey and the European Union is heading toward a strategic impasse.
There were indications of that during a visit by Turkey’s Democracy Platform (TDP), a civilian initiative which became active following the military coup attempt of July 15, to Brussels in mid-October. But during the Nov. 27-29 visit of the same group, it became obvious.
But before coming to the impasse, it is necessary to describe the rapidly changing circumstances in relations.
In mid-October, there was the post-coup trauma, there were the activities of the network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamic preacher who is accused of masterminding the plot, there were mass detentions, mass dismissals from public jobs for alleged involvement with the network, government trustees appointed to represent shares of alleged Gülenists in private companies, as well as journalists and writers who were being locked up in jail.
A few days after a delegation of the TDP took a behind-the-scenes initiative against the arrested journalists and writers, a probe was opened against the center-left daily Cumhuriyet for “conducting propaganda for terrorist organizations – both the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ),” as the prosecutors call the secret Gülen network, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At the time, 10 more journalists and media executives were added to the list, including Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu and columnist Kadri Gürsel, who is also the head of the Turkish chapter of the International Press Institution (IPI).
Soon after, President Tayyip Erdoğan stepped up the rhetoric to reinstate the death penalty, which had been abolished 14 years ago as part of the EU harmonization process.
Then came the arrest of 11 members of parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including its co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, for allegedly helping the PKK.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government issued a state of emergency decree to end the election of rectors at universities – a decision that had no apparent connection with the plot.
All this took place amid the talks between the AK Parti and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to enact constitutional amendments to shift from a parliamentarian system to an executive presidential as targeted by Erdoğan. That has been denounced by the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) as a dangerous step that could drag the country to one-man-rule.
But it’s not finished yet.
European politicians who had started to express their regret one by one for not responding in time in support of Turkey after it defeated the coup attempt, started to take a path that agitated Ankara even more.
A European Parliament vote that suggested to the EU Council that the – already unmoving – negotiations with Turkey should be stopped caused a furious reaction from Erdoğan.
Threatening to open the border gates for 3 million migrants, mostly from the Syria civil war, to stream toward EU countries, Erdoğan challenged European politicians to cut the relations at once, if they dared.
That is an indirect threat toward Angela Merkel of Germany, who took the initiative in 2015 to enact migrant control in exchange for visa flexibility and the opening of new negotiation chapters with Turkey, although the latter is set to expire at the end of 2016, practically in a few weeks’ time.
The EU has been urging a change in the anti-terror law during a time when Turkey is still suffering political trauma because of the coup attempt, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and the immense acts of terror by the PKK and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
And that is the impasse.
EU governments think Erdoğan is taking advantage of the coup attempt to endorse his position inside Turkey and because European rules limit his room to maneuver, he wants to take Turkey away from the European realm toward a Middle Eastern one.
At the same time, they also don’t favor Turkey in the EU amid a rising right-wing, xenophobic wave in Europe.
The Turkish government, on the other hand, thinks European politicians are trying to deter Turkey from becoming a part of an unwelcoming EU by forcing it to quit.
Apparently, EU capitals also think that it was Erdoğan who wanted them to kick Turkey out in order to put the blame on them about the possible consequences.
That’s because Turkey’s separation from the European system is likely to have consequences – not only for the economic and political realms, but also in the field of security.
The agitating, escalatory remarks by Turkish and European leaders are not helping the situation.
Who is going to blink first?
That is the question.
Before finding an answer that might be to the disadvantage of all parties, the channels of dialogue between Turkey and the EU have to be kept open and strengthened.
A de-escalation of the war of words by the leaders might be a good beginning.