BACKGROUND: Political decisions are frequently about supporting a bad decision in order to avoid an even worse one. This is certainly the case regarding the Turkey-EU action plan to deal with the refugee crisis. In a sudden stroke, the Turkish regime, which had been more or less internationally isolated, has become a key partner of the European Union. The EU is now bargaining with Turkey as the weaker actor; almost as if pushed against the wall, the Union is promising to speed up not only Turkish citizens’ visa-free entry to the EU’s Schengen area, but also the country’s stalled EU membership negotiations. These diplomatic endeavors are of course consequences of the fact that Turkey -- which hosts up to two million Syrian refugees – has become the main transit route for the migrants heading to Europe.
Germany is the preferred destination of the refugees; that explains why it was German chancellor Angela Merkel who last week went to Turkey in order to meet both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Merkel did this although there was only two weeks left to the crucial, repeated parliamentary elections in Turkey, to be held on 1 November, the results of which may determine the future prospects of parliamentary democracy in the country.
Obviously, the problematic timing and the possible consequences of such a high-level meeting in a delicate pre-election context did not go unnoticed either in Turkey or in Europe. In Germany, the opposition parties have criticized the chancellor’s decision, emphasizing that such a visit would boost President Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections.
The almost desperate need to get Turkey to stop the flow of refugees to Europe has led both Merkel and other EU leaders to overlook the authoritarian nature of the Turkish regime. The systematic violations of the rule of law, of the freedom of the press, of the basic political rights of the opposition, or just about anything at all listed in the EU’s Copenhagen criteria suddenly seem to be of little consequence, when the German chancellor gives the impression that the membership negotiations with Turkey are going to re-start.
Angela Merkel’s visit also infuriated academics and intellectuals in Turkey, with a group of them writing an open letter to Chancellor Merkel, harshly criticizing the visit, reminding that the regime of President Erdoğan and his AKP openly despise the values of the EU.
IMPLICATIONS: Is this criticism justified? The argument can be made – indeed it has been made – that the EU needs to defend its strategic interests in its near neighborhood that is in turmoil, especially as the domestic constituencies in the member states pressure their governments to end the uncontrolled influx of refugees. These suggestions are not completely out of place, but they nonetheless reveal a deep misunderstanding regarding what is actually taking place in Turkey. They also overlook that no matter how desperately the EU needs to secure Turkey’s cooperation in the refugee crisis, the union cannot afford to appear to be violating its own core values. In a breach of its internal code of action, the EU has decided to postpone the publication of its annual progress report on Turkey, which contains severe criticism of the Turkish regime. That risks weakening the EU, and thus undermines its efforts to protect its strategic interests in the long run.
For a long time, the EU – together with Turkey’s liberals – lent support to the Turkish regime on the assumption that the AKP was democratizing the country. But then there seemed to be, at least for a moment, a nasty wake-up to the Turkish realities when Western media and policy circles became aware of the authoritarian nature of the Turkish regime. The EU leaders started to demand more “determined efforts” by the AKP government to implement the necessary membership requirements – fundamental rights and freedoms, separation of powers, the rule of law, independent judiciary, active and pluralist civil society. Perhaps they still thought that the “process itself was important” and that engagement and patience, compounded with economic interdependence, would ultimately bring the AKP back to what was assumed to have been its original liberal agenda.
The argument that the “process itself is important”, and the assumption that the outright suspension of Turkey’s EU candidacy would end whatever leverage the EU has in Turkey, seems to be an inevitable outcome of the EU’s inherent trust in its own, supposedly, transformative power. Yet Turkey under the AKP refutes these European assumptions.
The EU’s leverage in Turkey is a questionable assumption in itself. Neither is it clear how political developments in Turkey would be positively affected by making promises nobody is able or ultimately willing to keep – such as the EU countries promising to support Turkey’s membership more determinately – or by joining two diametrically opposed political projects – European integration and the authoritarian Islamic-conservative state project in Turkey.
With its haphazardly designed policy toward Turkey, and by engaging in a bargaining that only demonstrates its lack of leverage, the EU undermines its external credibility. What the EU has managed, on the other hand, is to inadvertently bestow renewed legitimacy on Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime just before the crucial parliamentary elections. Concurrently, this amounts to an abandonment of those constituencies in Turkey with a genuine European vocation, and which thus might become the EU’s true partners in the future.
The widely accepted narrative that stresses Turkey’s supposedly indispensable value as the EU’s partner in the Middle East has long been a mantra that has prevented a more realistic assessment of Turkey’s political evolution since the AKP’s ascent to power in 2002. The refugee crisis is only the most recent chapter in the complicated and mishandled relationship between the European Union and Turkey.
In official rhetoric, EU representatives have professed that Turkey – as a NATO country and as an EU applicant – is not only a key ally in a deeply troubled region, but that Turkey also more or less shares the EU’s goals and values. There has been little interest to scrutinize the inherently anti-Western and Islamist ideology that has animated the AKP all along. This is fair to say, even though it is admittedly only during the last five years that the authoritarian and Islamist – and thus anti-Western – nature of the AKP regime has become more openly pronounced. In fact, however, the AKP has always defined itself in opposition to the foundational, republican, westernizing project of Turkey, which is the very reason why Turkey has been seen as a European country in the first place. This should have been noted as the portentous sign it always was.
Official European statements, according to which the EU and Turkey are fighting terrorism together, are nonsensical. The AKP’s ideological mission of transforming Turkey into an Islamic-conservative ideal society has its inevitable foreign policy dimension, explicitly expressed in the official government programs. This foreign policy, defined as “principled and value oriented,” amounts to an unambiguous endeavor to support jihadists across the Middle East. It has resulted in Turkey actively arming jihadi groups in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Against this backdrop, EU statements about “fighting terrorism” together with Turkey bear little relation to existing realities.
CONCLUSIONS: During the last decade, few within the top EU decision-making bodies have questioned the prevalent notion that the Islamist regime in Turkey respects the ideas of European unity and common European values. This was never anything but wishful thinking. Had the ideological character of the Turkish regime been duly acknowledged from start, one would not have been so shocked by the subsequent authoritarian turn.
The reluctance to admit that as long as Turkey is ruled by political Islamists, there is no way that the country could seriously implement true democratic reforms has prevented the EU from assessing its relation with Turkey in realistic terms. While the authoritarian nature of the Turkish regime is nowadays generally acknowledged, the acknowledgement of Turkey’s crucial role in ensuring that refugees are kept away from Europe has led the EU to re-engage with the Turkish regime.
However, by engaging in a bargaining that ultimately only demonstrates its lack of leverage, the EU undermines its external credibility. What the EU has managed, on the other hand, is to inadvertently bestow renewed legitimacy on Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime just before the crucial parliamentary elections.
By re-embracing Erdoğan, Angela Merkel and her European colleagues have sent the message that they care little about the fate of Turkey’s authentically European-oriented, democratic constituencies.
Toni Alaranta, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of the recently published book National and State Identity in Turkey: The Transformation of the Republic’s Status in the International System (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). His previous publications include Contemporary Kemalism: From Universal Secular-Humanism to Extreme Turkish Nationalism (Routledge, 2011)
Image attribution: www.jamestown.org, accessed on Oct 28, 2015