Europe has to decide about Turkey

Europe has to decide about Turkey

It is ironic that it is only at times like this that the EU starts waving the big stick, warning Ankara that if it does not fulfill its obligations in terms of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law it will endanger its membership prospects.

I am convinced, however, that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed the view of the majority of Turks when he blurted out, in response to the reactions from Europe to the operation against the Gülen movement’s media outlets, that “Turkey does not have an EU problem.”

His remark suggests that he personally couldn’t care less whether Turkey’s EU dimension progressed, stalled, or fell by the wayside. In other words, the EU stick just doesn’t work on Turkey anymore, and more’s the pity.

It is very unlikely, despite the small flurry of recent diplomatic activity between Turkey and the EU, that Ankara’s membership bid will emerge from the stagnation it is currently in and make fresh strides any time soon.

It is not just that Turkey’s democracy is heading for the sinkhole that is the problem. Opposition to Turkey’s membership remains at the highest level in Europe, despite the optimism that European diplomats try to inject into the subject with lofty remarks.

This is the main reason behind Erdoğan’s “couldn’t care less” attitude, which has a lot of public support. When Turks look to Europe they see very few, if any, partners, potential or otherwise, that they genuinely believe their country can rely on. This also feeds into their inbred sense of victimization.

It also works to Erdoğan’s advantage, given that he has made it amply clear that if he could he would turn Turkey in a different direction and away from Europe. It is the insurmountable facts of international relations, which in effect force Turkey to maintain the appearance of continuing its commitment to the EU perspective, that are preventing him from doing so.

Europe, however, is also faced with insurmountable facts concerning Turkey. It can’t do with it, but it can’t do without it in terms of its long term strategic interests. If it is as concerned with Turkey’s fate as it claims to be at time such as this, then it has to decide what it is willing to give Ankara to keep it truly “anchored in Europe.” This will, of course, have to be meaningful for Turkey, otherwise it will only be more of the same.

There are diplomats who point to recent surveys by groups like the German Marshall Fund which show that Turks are now keen on EU membership once again. But Turks have always been keen on membership. It is reactions from Europe that put them off. Support for the EU will increase automatically if there is purposeful support from Europe for Turkey’s democratic process, with concrete rewards that are in line with the commitments the EU undertook when entering membership talks with Ankara.

Unfortunately, the criticism from the EU and individual member states today rings hollow to the same Turks who appear keen on EU membership again. This criticism from Europe comes only days after it became clear that key chapters in Turkey’s membership talks will remain blocked by certain members, and not just Cyprus.

The overall picture today suggests that Turkey is drifting away from Europe. Lowest common denominator interests will obviously ensure that ties are somehow maintained at some level. But the day when Turkey does not see a strategic value in pursuing its European vocation does not appear such a dim prospect anymore.

Therefore, Europe has to go beyond rhetoric and decide what its meaningful response will be to Erdoğan’s dismissive attitude about the EU, and his increasing authoritarianism at home. This will have to be accompanied by the promise of concomitant rewards for returning to the correct path.

A nagging voice inside me says this will not happen and that Europe will continue to muddle through with empty warnings, hoping somehow to keep Turkey tethered to Europe even as it drifts away.