Turkey and Brexit: Anything bad for the West is good for Turkey
The Turks are enjoying Brexit a lot. To tell the truth, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is right to point out that British Prime Minister Cameron lost his EU bid and lost his country’s EU membership after claiming that Turkey was so far from EU membership that it wouldn’t join until the year 3000. In fact, the truth is that as the anti-EU mood rises in governing party circles, the president and his party are glad that the EU is facing dissolution itself. The EU has been a liberal project of supra-national politics and founded on the idea of the compatibility of universal values like human rights and multicultural richness, but Brexit is an expression of a backlash.
The governing party in Turkey has long been drifting away from its previous pro-EU stance and sliding toward anti-Western nationalism. As early as December 2014, Erdoğan announced that “we do not care if the EU accepts us or not” in response to EU criticism of Turkey concerning press freedom. Since then, he has become even more skeptical of the EU and the Western world in general. It is no surprise that the increasingly authoritarian president and his supporters are becoming increasingly skeptical of any international interference in the name of human rights and freedoms. Ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was the last person in his party to be enthusiastic about Turkey’s EU membership, and it was him who brokered the refugee deal with Germany. The deal has faced a lot of justified criticism, but it nevertheless represented the last effort to work with the EU. The president, who has been wary of the deal from the very beginning, closed the chapter after he removed Davutoğlu. The German Parliament’s decision to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide helped ratchet up the anti-EU mood and political posturing. Finally, the EU’s demand that Turkey revise its terror laws enraged Erdogan and Turkish nationalists amid military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that have cost the lives of many members of the security forces and soldiers.
Right after the British voted for Brexit, Erdoğan declared that Turkey may also go to referendum to decide to end negotiations with the EU and claimed that the EU was refusing to accept Turkey as a member because of its religion, Islam. It seems that when Erdoğan and others first formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP), they claimed to be advocates of EU membership to attract the support of liberals and democrats in Turkey as well as to gain international support in order to fight against the republican status quo. Now, we see a total twist of opinion, as Erdoğan and his Islamist/nationalist followers feel powerful enough that they don’t need to pretend to be democrats who believe in universal values. On the contrary, norms and values like human rights and freedoms are being perceived as hindrances on the way to the New Turkey Project, and the EU link is thought to weaken their political power. I have no doubt that the ruling party and its leader, the president, will not hesitate to loosen Turkey’s link to the EU even further, even if it is argued that such a move would be economically disadvantageous for Turkey. It seems that Erdoğan thinks that a weakened EU will be a golden opportunity for Turkey since it will give Ankara a lot of bargaining power. It is hard to see why a weakened EU will necessarily give more bargaining power to Turkey, but this is what the president thinks, and that is all that matters in Turkey’s policy making.
Perhaps it is the combination of wishful thinking and Schadenfreude. After all, the rising nationalism is all based on wishful thinking concerning the prospects of Turkey as a global, Muslim actor. And after all, rising anti-Westernism fosters the idea that “anything which is bad for the West should be good for us.”