A sad farewell to the European Union

A sad farewell to the European Union

President Tayyip Erdoğan spoke to a supportive audience in Ankara on Nov. 14 and said something about the strained relations between Turkey and the European Union. Slamming Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, who said the negotiations with Turkey would end if Turkey brings back the death penalty, Erdoğan said: “You say ‘we’ll stop the accession talks;’ well, you’re late. You should decide right away… I say as the president that we should show patience until the end of the year. Then we ask the nation about the issue.”

As many political commentators noted, this was a signal for a “Turexit.” In other words, Turkey could soon exit the European Union, even though it never joined it anyway. 

How we got here is a sad story. In fact it was Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) which initiated the negotiations with the European Union in 2004. At that time, the AKP badly needed this international lifeline for it was under the constant threat of Turkey’s secularist military and judiciary. A political system in which armies do not launch coups and courts do not close down political parties according to their ideology was a European model that Erdoğan and his colleagues liked a lot. 

But as time went by, the initial love affair began to fade. First, some European countries, such as France, made it clear that they didn’t want to include some 70 million Turks (read: Muslims) in a predominantly Christian (read: post-Christian) continent. This killed the enthusiasm within Turkey. Then came the 2008 crisis, and the repercussions in Spain or Greece, which made the EU a less charming club to join.

Meanwhile, political dynamics in Turkey gradually turned upside down. The AKP, which began its political life by crying out “reform, freedoms and rights” in the face of an authoritarian establishment, soon began to build its own authoritarian establishment. EU norms, which looked like a savior before, now looked like an annoying “tutelage.” That is why the AKP developed an increasingly fierce anti-Western narrative, condemning the very norms that saved itself in the past as imperialist meddling in “our domestic affairs.”  

This does not mean that EU representatives have always done the right thing to improve the relationship. In most cases, they were right to criticize the government’s authoritarianism, but they sometimes turned a blind eye to other troubling dynamics and actors, proving themselves less informed and relevant. The European reaction to the bloody coup attempt in July was so meek that Turkey’s already paranoid nationalists could easily see in it a hint of Western conspiracy. Similarly, the trouble with the wanton violence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the political support given to the PKK by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which at least should have brought moral reservations about the party, were overlooked. 

At the end of the day, it seems that the EU-Turkish affair did not work well and may come to a definitive breakup sometime soon. I really wish it had worked otherwise. And while getting ready for a sad farewell to the EU, I am at least hoping that Turkey’s presence in the Council of Europe, and its attachment to the European Court of Human Rights, will not vanish. For if we lose them as well, then there will be almost no constraint left on the zealous political wave that is dragging Turkey toward a very bleak future.