Europe must decide

Europe must decide

The European Union has once again come to a crossroads in its relations with Turkey. The traditional “my interests come first” position of international diplomacy and the central “supremacy of norms, values and principles” pillars of the EU have collided. Will Europe put its interests in front or prefer to stick to the sacrosanct values and norms that transformed the warring European nations of the 1940s into a European democratic family over the past half-century? In any case, the apple cart at hand will have to endure some troubles.

For a long time Turkey was in an interregnum. There was a president thinking he was the “sole and all powerful chief executive” of the country, a constitutional system placing executive power on the prime minister and a prime minister who succumbed to the president both in governance and party affairs while at the same time undertaking discreet moves consolidating himself as the “real power” of the country. That system was of course not sustainable. For more than six months the country was unable to make top level appointments, including those at the provincial governor level, that required the signatures of the relevant minister and both the prime minister and the president.

Yet, the last drop that spilled the glass did not come from governance related issues but rather a strategy move within the party by the merry men of the president to strip the premier of his power to rearrange local party delegates. That was what ordinary observers like this writer saw, though it became clear within days that the prime minister had indeed provoked such a move by changing party organization in 20 provinces and appointing new delegates even without informing the deputy chairman in charge of organizational affairs.

Whether it was a “palace coup” or a “democratic transfer of power” might be a source of controversy but the bottom line of what indeed happened was rather clear. There was a government that came to office just a few months ago with the support of almost one of every two Turks. There was no military takeover or social upheaval, but the government was compelled to come to an abrupt end because the president wanted a lower profile prime minister. What was this? Difficult and dangerous to say for now, but I will write on it a lot when the time comes.

For Europe, however, there is a nasty consequence of this development: How to deal with an autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has further consolidated his power. Under pressure from Erdoğan, the outgoing prime minister was already stressing that if Europe did not deliver free travel to Turkish nationals, Turkey would let its gates open and allow tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to flood Europe. For the sake of the deal to shelter refugees in exchange of 6 billion euros (over three years) to meet the costs of refugees from Syria and Iraq, as well as the possibility of the visa-free travel arrangement and a fresh push of accession talks, European leaders preferred to adopt a colder approach to issues pertaining to rights and liberties in Turkey.

The increasingly authoritarian tilt of Erdoğan, however, which could not leave any place even for Davutoğlu in governance, and persistent and aggravated rhetoric that Europe should mind its own business and stop bothering with how Turkey described terrorism, must now force the Europeans to make a recalculation.

It was not news for most Turks when Erdoğan boldly condemned as “unacceptable” the demand by the European Commission that Turkey should narrow its application of antiterrorism laws and bring them in line with European Union standards – which was one of the 72 conditions EU set for visa-free travel. While the EU has been asking Turkey to narrow the jurisdiction of the antiterrorism laws, complaining of the broadness of the existing Turkish legislation, Erdoğan has been demanding to further widen the definition of “terrorist” to include journalists and academics that were deemed by the authorities to have provided support for terrorists or terrorist gangs.

The bold declaration by Erdoğan that Turkey would not change its antiterrorism law for the sake of a visa deal ought to be taken very seriously by Europe. The bolder “we will go our way; you go yours” statement must be taken even more seriously. After all, Erdoğan is a man of his word and if he said he will dump the deal if his conditions are not met, he will surely dump it. Is Europe ready for a new flood of Syrian, Iraqi, Asian and African refugees? What comes first for Europe, its interests or norms and values? Europe must decide.