Turkey and the EU: Reaching a new tipping point?

Turkey is quickly approaching a defining moment in its modern history. After the country was roiled by a failed military coup on July 15th, President Erdoğan declared a state of emergency and his cabinet adopted extraordinary measures that led to a draconian (and apparently premeditated) purge of political opponents. These opponents are allegedly affiliated with the religious and social movement of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, an erstwhile ally turned arch enemy of President Erdoğan. Gülen has been accused of masterminding the coup. More than 10,000 soldiers have been detained; almost 9,000 police officers and 21,000 Ministry of Education officials fired; more than 2,500 members of the judiciary, 1,500 Ministry of Finance officials and 21,000 private-school teachers have been suspended; 1,500 university deans have been forced to resign; and more than 100 media outlets have been shut down, with at least 28 ‘Gülenist’ journalists detained. These numbers are staggering, and they keep rising.

Faced with a President who has unleashed a crackdown whose harshness is unprecedented in modern history, it is understandable that there are concerns among leaders in the EU about the intentions of the Turkish government to uphold European values. Many observers see Erdoğan’s actions as further proof of Turkey’s slide towards authoritarianism. Whereas aspects of the abortive putsch and whether or not Mr Gülen directed it remain unclear, the evidence indicates that Gülenist army officers were behind it and there is scant support for the various conspiracy theories that it was staged by Erdoğan himself to tighten his grip on power.

Arguably, the limited empathy shown by many Europeans for the assault on Turkey’s democracy, in which at least 270 people died, is the result of a low level of understanding of the complex realities in the country. The failed coup has shown the fragility of Turkey’s army and state institutions, as well as the resilience of a civil society which – although it has become more Islamic over the years − proved united in its rejection of regime change by way of a military junta ousting a democratically elected strongman.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Turkey has become a less-polarised society and a stronger consensus has emerged between secularist and Islamist political parties. Until July 15th, the political discourse was shaped by nationalists arguing for constitutional reform in order to turn the Republic of Turkey into a presidential system. Now, the concept of democracy is hailed with reference to the citizens who went out onto the streets, stood up to rogue military elements and stopped the coup. It is striking that most opposition parties have rallied behind Erdoğan on this issue.

The overwhelming majority of society is taking pride in the concept of democracy. Admittedly, there are chilling aspects to the high rhetoric coming out of Turkey over the summer, such as calls for a reintroduction of capital punishment. But the government is well aware that this constitutes a red line for the European Union which, if crossed, would lead to the suspension and possible termination of the Turkish accession process. Such a response would not be in Turkey’s interest.

The stakes are too high to risk a breakdown in bilateral relations: Turkey and the EU need each other, both at home and in the common neighbourhood. Megaphone diplomacy is not helpful.

In the meantime the EU has recognised that exceptional measures were required to safeguard Turkey’s democratic institutions against the attempted regime change by a part of the armed forces. The supposedly imminent resolution of the Cyprus issue could help unblock the opening of accession negotiation chapters. This would also assist Turkey in reforming its judiciary and upholding fundamental rights, according to best European practice. But it does not, in and of itself, guarantee adherence to European values.

It is now up to the government of Turkey to show that its exceptional measures meet the requirements of proportionality and the rule of law, and that each case is being properly investigated and dealt with on an individual basis. Erdoğan and his cabinet should allow the country to quickly return to a state of normality in which the concept of democracy is applied to more than just the act of voting − with the introduction of a proper separation of powers, room for a free press and a reconciliation process in society that includes the Kurdish minority.

If this scenario does not materialise any time soon, one would be forgiven for wondering whether a new, more transactional narrative might ultimately replace “the pretence that accession remains a realistic option for the foreseeable future” (Sinan Ülgen, Financial Times, 15 August 2016).

Senior Research Fellow and Head of EU Foreign Policy Unit