19/12/2014

Europe and Erdoğan’s Turkey: Cooperation Gone Awry

By Barbara Gianessi

When European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, paid a high profile visit to Turkey last week she raised the hopes of those who urge for a renewed relationship between the EU and Turkey. This meeting, just one month after Mogherini’s appointment, was interpreted as a demonstration of good-will to enhance EU partnership with Ankara, which for a long time has been in a state of inertia. During her visit, Ms. Mogherini called for a stronger “alignment on foreign policy” with Turkey, stressing the importance of a closer cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) militants and on EU sanctions against Russia. During her stay in Turkey Mogherini visited also the refugee camps in Gaziantep, on the Turkish-Syrian border, pledging 85 million $ of additional refugee assistance[1].

Internal dimensions and international spillovers

Less than one week after this meeting, which was presented as constructive by both sides, the political environment between Brussels and Ankara has already frozen. In fact, on the 15th of November Ms Mogherini sharply criticised President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s operation against two opposition media: Turkish most-read newspaper – Zaman –  and a national television – Samanyolu TV channel. The two headquarters were raided by the police on Sunday December 14th and around 27 journalists were arrested, as believed to be too close to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen[2]. Gulen was a former ally of Erdoğan against the country’s secular military and political elite and he is also the spiritual leader of the Hizmet movement (“Service”), an organization with no formal structure but counting several millions of followers, spread across more than 150 countries. In the past few years a power struggle between the two emerged and Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US, is now accused of attempting to run a « parallel state » within Turkey thanks to his social and political influence and its “partisan” media[3].

© Ozan Kose /AFP - Getty Images | Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Turkey's top-selling newspaper Zaman, waves to staff members, while being arrested by counter-terror police at the newspaper's headquarters in Istanbul on Dec. 14.

© Ozan Kose /AFP – Getty Images | Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Turkey’s top-selling newspaper Zaman, waves to staff members, while being arrested by counter-terror police at the newspaper’s headquarters in Istanbul on Dec. 14.

Commenting over the raids against Turkish journalists, Ms Mogherini stated that the operation goes “against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of », reminding to Ankara that any move towards EU membership depended on « full respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights »[4]. Erdoğan replied that he had “no concern about what the EU might say or whether the EU accepts [Turkey] as member or not”, concluding that the “EU could keep its wisdom to itself”[5]. Erdoğan’s caustic answer surely raise an inevitable question: is Turkey adhesion to the EU still on the table?[6]
Turkey represents the only case of an EU membership process that has lasted over a decade. In fact, Ankara submitted its official application in 1987, but it was not until 2005 that it officially began negotiating the accession criteria. Despite ten years of consultations, at the end of 2014 just 14 out of 35 chapters had been opened and only one (science and research) has been closed. Several vetoes by the European council, France and the Republic of Cyprus have meant that many chapters of the negotiations are frozen[7]. Besides, the euro zone crisis at a time when the Turkish economy continued to perform well led Ankara government to become more and more dubious about its interest in becoming an EU member[8].

 

The changing system alliances and its consequences for Europe

The emergence of the group of the Islamic State (IS) and its destabilising effects in Syria and Iraq, as well as the risk of European foreign fighters’ return to their own countries, has stimulated closer engagement with Erdoğan’s government to find ways and means to face this new challenge[9]. Turkey is also fundamental for Europe to diversify its energy supplies. This is particularly true after the worsening of the Ukrainian crisis and Moscow’s decision to cancel the South Stream gas project that would have brought Russian gas to Western Europe through Bulgaria[10].

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini speaks during a press conference after their meeting at the Ankara Palace on December 8| © AFP Photo / Adem Altan

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini speaks during a press conference after their meeting at the Ankara Palace on December 8| © AFP Photo / Adem Altan

But it is undeniable that Erdoğan and his European counterparts are still deeply divided in their foreign policy priorities. Regarding the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the EU is trying in vain to persuade Erdoğan to join Western sanctions against Russia. On the contrary, during a recent summit, Putin and Erdoğan pledged to triple their bilateral trade by 2020[11]. Moreover, in the fight against the group of the Islamic State, Turkey has been reluctant to take part in the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria. This might be related to the fact that hundreds of Turks are suspected to be fighting alongside IS in Syria and the group is also feared to have sleeper cells in Turkey[12]. Beside, Turkey’s worrisome human rights record, especially Erdoğan’s zero tolerance for criticism as demonstrated by the repression against Gezi street protests in 2013 and this recent intimidation of opposition journalists, have transformed Ankara in a thorny partner for Europe[13].

Erdoğan’s consolidation of his authoritarian political power has proceeded in parallel with Turkey’s estrangement from Europe, benefiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he shares a similar disregard toward pluralism and human rights. Nevertheless, even if Turkey admission to the EU in the foreseeable future seems improbable, Turkey right now is too important for Europe to let Erdoğan’s megalomaniac political project blast away any future hope for cooperation.

References: 

[1] Al Monitor, Will Turkey, EU relations improve after Mogherini visit?, 11th December 2014

[2] Al Jazeera, Turkey criticised for detaining journalists, 15th December 2014

[3] The timing of these arrests would not be coincidental: exactly one year ago the biggest corruption scandal in Turkish modern history exploded, targeting Erdoğan and his inner circle. Four ministers were forced to resign and it was widely believed that the government wouldn’t survive. Erdoğan and officials from ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party have at various times claimed that last December’s corruption investigations were a plot by the Gulenists to topple the government. See BBC News, Turkey media arrests: Mogherini leads EU criticism, 14th December 2014

[4] BBC News, Turkey media arrests: Mogherini leads EU criticism, 14th December 2014

[5] Reuters, Turkey’s Erdoğan says media raids a response to ‘dirty’ plot, 15th December 2014

[6] The Guardian,  Can Turkey under Erdoğan any longer be deemed a reliable western ally?, 15th December 2014

[7] Its application was rejected by the European Commission in 1989 due to what were considered as grave democratic deficiencies. Nevertheless, unlike Morocco – whose application was rejected the same year – the EC stated that Turkey was eligible for full Eu membership. The expectation rose in 1996 when Turkey entered the EU customs union, which appeared as a preliminary step to full Eu membership. See Nathalie Tocci

[8] Nathalie Tocci, Turkey and the European Union: A Journey in the Unknown, Brookings, Turkey Project Policy Paper N. 5, Novembre 2014

[9] Al Monitor, Will Turkey, EU relations improve after Mogherini visit?, 11th December 2014

[10] The Guardian,  Can Turkey under Erdoğan any longer be deemed a reliable western ally?, 15th December 2014

[11] Middle East Eye, Are Turkey and the EU rekindling their love? 15th December 2014

[12] Al Arabiya News, Doubts linger over Turkey’s stance on fighting ISIS, 27th September 2014

[13] The Guardian,  Can Turkey under Erdoğan any longer be deemed a reliable western ally?, 15th December 2014