Can Europe Make It?

The EU’s self-inflicted traps undermine its ability to respond to Turkey’s creeping authoritarianism

European mainstream leaders often forget that the fight against far-right appeal requires a rather more systematic approach, with or without the cooperation of Turkey in tackling Syrian refugees.

Bilge Yabanci
22 March 2017

Istanbul, May 2016. Michael Kappeler/Press Association. All rights reserved.Turkey will rush to the polls on 16 April 2017 under the extended state of emergency measures to vote for the 18-point constitutional amendment. If approved by a simple majority, the amendments will replace the current parliamentary system with an uncontrolled executive presidentialism giving the elected president powers to appoint and dismiss vice-presidents and ministers, issue executive decrees, control the budget, and appoint the members of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors. The reform is designed to allow the current President Erdogan to stay in power until 2029.

The constitutional vote has even triggered a series of diplomatic crises with Germany and Netherlands over the plans of the AKP to campaign in cities with considerable Turkish immigrant populations. Following the German Constitutional Court’s decision and the Austrian Chancellor’s call for an EU-wide ban on the appearances of Turkish politicians in Europe, the row deepened when the Dutch government recently deported the minister of family affairs. The crisis escalated as Erdogan called German and Dutch politicians Nazi remnants and fascists , promising retaliation. Other European governments may join Germany and Netherlands in the coming weeks.

Recent reactions from the some member states may seem like the EU is finally awakening to the reality of Turkey after a long period of appeasement. Yet, a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and some EU countries was hardly surprising given no shortage of earlier instances of brash Turkish governmental rebuke and undiplomatic rhetoric. However, it is wrong to assume that all EU states and institutions share the same opinion on relations with Turkey or that such political rows will help the EU build an efficient response to Turkey’s authoritarian turn.

Three camps within the EU

The EU remains divided over the question of relations with Turkey’s government with which it shares strategic interests. There are three camps within the EU. In the first camp, there are those with a principled approach calling for a unified EU response to Turkey’s authoritarian turn. The European Parliament tried to champion this principled position last year. So far, its unbinding resolution of last November is by far the most direct official statement from the EU condemning the oppressive measures in the post-coup period. The resolution asked member states to consider the option of suspension of accession negotiations, but failed to find support even from the Commission.

In the second camp, there are member states that have always been sceptical about Turkey’s accession prospects and preferred one-to-one relations. They mostly use the recent authoritarian turn in the country as an alibi to justify their culturalist approach questioning Turkey’s place within the EU. Indeed, the bans on the AKP-sponsored referendum campaigns in member states are also motivated by this long-term scepticism in Germany, Netherlands and Austria.

In the third camp, there are pragmatists calling for the prioritisation of EU interests, namely the continuation of the fragile and widely criticised refugee agreement with Turkey. They insist that political conditionality would be a ‘useless provocation’ of the AKP which is, then, likely to give up patrolling the Aegean and to unilaterally call off the refugee deal. The logic goes that the EU would face another wave of irregular refugee inflow that could only contribute to anti-immigration public opinion and scale up the support for populist far-right parties. So far, the majority of EU leaders and the Commission agree on the need to keep Turkey’s accession negotiations afloat in order to secure the Turkish government’s support, until either the AKP government decides to terminate them unilaterally or introduces the death penalty, a so-called red line for the EU.

The recent diplomatic crises with some member states imply that in the foreseeable future the second and third camps are likely to take the lead within the EU regarding future relations with Turkey.  However, it is hard to see how such a patchy and inconsistent response would actually help either to restore the rule of law in Turkey or to defend the EU interests. The evaluation by both camps of the situation in Turkey is blinded by fundamental misperceptions about the EU’s interests as well as Turkey’s socio-political developments. These misperceptions have so far trapped the EU in impotence. Unless, there is an honest intra-EU debate about these developments, the EU cannot break free from its self-inflicted traps or even engage in a realistic assessment of its relations with Turkey.

Trap 1: the dichotomy between EU interests and norms

The first and most obvious trap is the dichotomy between EU interests and norms. There is little doubt that ensuring border security, preventing irregular migration, and keeping anti-immigration and far-right sentiments in check at home are of major interest to the EU. The flaw emerges, however, when politicians assume that these interests oblige the EU to overlook its own norms.  EU Commission President Juncker was particularly direct when he dismissed the European Parliament’s suggestion of suspending Turkey’s accession talks due to worsening human rights practice, with the claim that the EU requires relations with all dictatorships in order to ‘help organise, to co-organise the world’. Juncker’s way of defending cold realpolitik could incur public embarrassment and electoral liability for elected politicians in mature democracies. EU representatives are not usually exposed to such public criticisms. Yet, we are left with the conclusion that EU interests always trump democratic values while ensuring that Europe and its neighbourhood are stable and secure.

This immediately poses the question: wasn’t democracy always understood to be a cornerstone of EU security and stability? Wasn’t enlargement as a policy of exporting the norms of a Kantian paradise to third countries precisely an integral part of EU security strategy? Doesn’t the behaviour of the countries that the EU cooperates with have an impact on its internal security and stability? Indeed, the EU tells the world that there is ‘no stability without democracy’. Openly acknowledging that the EU will now tolerate a candidate country at its doorstep on the brink of authoritarian consolidation does not only deny EU norms, but it jeopardises long-term EU interests.

There follows a significant reality check: does this highly valued refugee deal address the EU’s expectations? How feasible is it in fact to decouple interests from principles? To mention just a few facts, the Mediterranean route is still wide-open to Italy, Spain and Cyprus. Only last year, more than 200,000 refugees arrived on EU soil from sub-Saharan Africa. The number of stranded refugees in Greece now stands around 60,000  of which 27,500 are children without access to education. Furthermore, 14,000 refugees are stranded in the Balkans since the Balkan route was closed following bilateral agreements with the EU.

Most of the stranded refugees are women and children waiting for family reunification in another EU country. The relocation policy does not work because member states are reluctant to share the burden of Greece and Italy. Given the current pace of relocation, it is estimated that it will take 18 years to relocate these stranded refugees. One of the most loudly marketed objectives of the EU-Turkey refugee deal was the aim to crush human smuggling networks. And yet, refugee camps between France and UK have become uncharted territories where human smugglers can abuse woman and child refugees at will. In short, it is misleading to suggest that the solution to the EU’s refugee crisis has been found in the continuation of Turkey’s cooperation. The EU’s overall response to the refugee crisis has fundamental humanitarian shortcomings; and this is why it does not and will not serve its interests.

Also, one needs to ask how realistic it is to link the continuation of Turkey’s cooperation on the refugee crisis with stemming the rise of far right sentiment in Europe. Undeniably, the refugee crisis has been used as an excuse by all the anti-immigration parties. But, let us stop pretending: such parties began their assault on immigration long before the Syrian crisis and the subsequent refugee inflow. The rise of far-right appeal is a price member states pay after years of mainstreaming identity politics, racism, anti-immigration and Islamophobia. Member states have long tolerated misleading media coverage of far-right violence, failed to respond when far-right figures claim to be the voice of the silent majority, and explicitly stir up negative public opinion regarding immigration and integration policies. European mainstream leaders often forget that the fight against the appeal of the far-right requires a rather more systematic approach, with or without the cooperation of Turkey in tackling Syrian refugees.

This is also the reason why the recent bans on AKP rallies and the strong reaction from some EU member states are the most inefficient answers to the situation at hand. The bans do not serve a united and principled EU response to Turkey’s authoritarian turn or combat the rising far-right appeal in Europe. Understandably, Turkish party-state propaganda does not please European leaders with sizeable and diverse Turkish populations. But, these countries did not ban AKP rallies because the ‘Turkish-style presidential system’ is not the way the EU does things. Indeed, for a long time, the AKP has been allowed to maintain close relations with Turkish immigrants in Europe, attributing a special importance to some 5 million people both as potential electorate and as an indirect instrument to create grassroots influence on EU states.

However, these bans have only been issued before critical elections in Germany and Netherlands, when the key issues dominating the electoral campaigns are immigration, integration and identity. Disunited and ad hoc reactions from single member states only play into the hands of those European far-right politicians who seek to flare nativist and assimilationist answers to such key democratic and electoral issues.

Trap 2: historical bias in EU-Turkey relations

The second trap of EU-Turkey relations is the assumed temporary nature of the current unease, given historically problematic relations between the EU and Turkey. Several analysts have propagated the view that Turkey’s history with the EU is one of an ‘ebb and flow between pro- and anti-EU feelings’, with the recent distancing just another episode in a long-term trend. Some have even urged the EU to be cautious about avoiding ‘a train wreck’ and providing the Turkish government with options of an easy exit from EU membership conditionality, suggesting instead ‘strategic patience’ and a ‘soft exit’.  

Turkey has always had structural problems in its experience of democracy, particularly under the influence of the military. However, the old paradigms are no longer sufficient to understand the current level of democratic erosion in Turkey in the hands of a democratically elected government. If we are to confine the future of EU-Turkey relations to coining fancy terms so that the AKP can secure a face-saving exit from accession conditionality, then we may as well give up pretending that historically close relations matter these days.

It was the principled approach from the EU pressing for participatory and pluralist democracy that created subsequent periods of mutual distancing and anti-EU feelings in the past. In its current form, the historical bias in EU-Turkey relations can only leave the EU with the prospect of radically underestimating the scale of systematic destruction of democracy with its wait and see policy, while the authoritarian spiral deepens its grip on the biggest candidate country.

Trap 3: the elite-driven and intergovernmental nature of EU-Turkey relations

A further problem arises from the elite-driven or intergovernmental nature of EU-Turkey relations. Up to now, the EU leadership has remained confident that the EU should maintain a dialogue with the AKP government. In principle, accession negotiations are essentially elite-driven. The EU mainly talks to the candidate country government that holds the responsibility for initiating reforms. Similarly, the political deal on refugees is the product of an intergovernmental accord.

However, intergovernmental and elite-driven relations can only work under two indispensable conditions. First, the candidate country government should be politically willing to undertake and implement reforms. Second, the EU should provide a clear commitment to the end goal that is full membership. Today, both conditions are missing in EU-Turkey relations. The actual problem is that after the official accession negotiations started in 2005, the EU for a long time spoke only to the government, bypassing regular meetings with the grassroots, the parliamentary opposition and civil society. The result was a startling failure to address the declining public support for EU membership and to understand the social dynamics behind the 2013 Gezi revolt.

Insisting on high-level dialogue – while some member states take discretionary steps towards Turkey – has even proved to be counterproductive so far. The EU’s prioritisation of relations with the government has provided an exceptional opportunity for the AKP to bolster anti-EU and anti-western public opinion at home. The most recent example is the AKP’s use of bans in the Netherlands as domestic propaganda to further convince its supporters of a western conspiracy against a ‘strong Turkey’ that is promised to miraculously emerge after the April referendum.

The expectation that the EU could change the Turkish government’s attitude by keeping up this high-level engagement while leaving other actors out of the loop is doomed to failure as long as the AKP continues to embark on a perpetual search for external enemies to promote and maintain its sole grip on domestic popularity.

Trap 4: assumptions regarding social resistance

Finally, there is a widespread misperception that the EU has limited options in addressing the creeping authoritarianism in Turkey, since the AKP is by far the most popular party and there is no organised social reaction and resistance. It is obvious that the AKP has wide support and that Erdogan possesses a cult leadership image that opposition leaders have so far failed to match. Yet, the assumption that there is no organised dissent is a result of a far more  general bias against social resistance in the west and particularly in the EU. When the EU talks about social resistance, usually it evokes images of revolutionary street protests and a government’s violent reaction.

Since the 2013 Gezi revolt, civil resistance has taken on discreet and everyday forms in Turkey. Today, the majority of civil society organisations and organised networks of activists mostly focus on alternative issues to avoid persecution, such as environmental degradation and the exploitation of the commons and labour as a result of the government’s neoliberal policies, feminist and green activism, and the rights of sexual minorities. There is also a great deal of civil resistance using available public space. Every day actions of millions of people have taken one or several methods from Gene Sharp’s famous 198 ways of non-violent resistance , ranging from drama, music and cartoons to local strikes and demonstrations, and silent protests; from slogans and mock awards to hunger strikes.

If the EU wants to see resistance before acting, it should look more closely in order to understand the ways, means and actors of resistance in Turkey. This would of course return us to the necessity of genuinely engaging with actors other than political elites. It would help the EU see beyond its own parochialisms about resistance under oppression, and it would give credibility and voice to the legitimate actors of resistance before all channels of speech and expression are closed down in Turkey.

The authoritarian turn will affect Turkey’s relations with the EU for years to come. Yet, the EU remains delusional about Turkey. These self-inflicted traps based on assumptions and misperceptions of the political developments under AKP rule have prevented an honest conversation within the EU to address its increasingly complicated relations with Turkey. The failure to orchestrate an efficient and unified response has so far trapped the EU in a situation unable to tackle the authoritarian turn in Turkey. This can only continue to aid the culturalist and far-right camp in Turkey and the EU to attain yet more media coverage and public popularity. If repeated, the EU’s self-inflicted traps will also fail it in the western Balkans where democratic rollback has also found its way through.

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