A ‘new’ Turkey?
Turkey has been dominating the news this summer. A failed military coup d'état brought the country into a state of turmoil in July, with huge demonstrations against the coup followed by mass detentions, arrests and dismissals of military staff, civil servants and teachers who are seen as suspect merely because they belong to the Gülen movement. There are already tens of thousands of them and the hunt for Gülenists is continuing in other sectors, with the implicit support of the secular opposition parties such as the MHP, CHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP. Questions are rightly being raised as to whether the reaction of the Turkish authorities has been disproportionate and whether the rule of law has been ensured in the treatment of suspects. Ankara cannot understand why these questions have received the most attention in the majority of EU countries from the very first day after the failed coup. Where is the solidarity with the 238 victims killed during the attempted coup? It took a long time before an eminent representative of the West showed their face in Turkey, in the person of the American vice president Biden this week. The EU will now follow. It does take a long time in Brussels for the mandate for such a mission to be formulated. Unanimity about Turkey has been hard to achieve for some time now.
The question is whether the visits such as these will generate more mutual understanding. President Erdogan seems determined to deal with the Gülenists once and for all, not only within the army and the civil service, but also in the commercial sector. For the time being, he is encountering little resistance in Turkey itself. His popularity has reached unprecedented levels, riding on a wave of nationalism. Things may change. Whereas his Islamic AK party and the Muslim movement of Fethullah Gülen were united in the recent past as they largely dismantled the ‘deep state’ of the secular Kemalists, Erdogan is now working together with the secular and nationalist opposition parties that support a tough crackdown on the (alleged) coup plotters and their sympathisers. Turkey experts expect that Erdogan’s next step - now that he has the wind in his sails - will be the introduction of a presidential system. He could achieve that by calling new parliamentary elections or through a referendum. His popularity has perhaps never been as high as it is now. That could bring him into conflict with his current secular partners, who are in no hurry to see this happen. Given the deep polarisation of Turkish politics, it seems more than fair to ask how long this unnatural coalition will hold.
Although it would not have been unreasonable for Europe to show a little more solidarity with the Turkish people after the violent coup attempt, it is the follow-up inside the country that is putting relationships under pressure. While the official reactions have been cautious – only the Austrian government has openly demanded that negotiations should be halted – the debate in many EU countries is now about the question of whether it still makes sense to keep talking about EU membership with the ‘new’ Turkey. Formal cessation would have little practical effect right now – there have been no more genuine negotiations for quite some time – but the political impact could be substantial. In Ankara, where EU membership is still seen as a strategic objective, it would be viewed as a door being slammed in their face; a huge breach of trust.
Brussels would lose an important opportunity for dialogue about respect for European values, for instance. According to this reasoning, negative trends such as further deterioration of the rule of law and the drift towards an authoritarian state would be strengthened. It is thought to be too early to be aiming for such a break now. On top of that, the negotiations are particularly important as a corporative process. Whether they will ever result in EU membership is an open question.
The flip side is of course whether the EU can still exert influence on the strategic reorientation that seems to be under way in Ankara, where – despite the latest Turkish rhetoric about EU membership by 2023 – there is apparently insufficient confidence in the European integration process and (just to be on the safe side) a course is being taken that focuses on the strength of an independent Turkey as a key country in the region. The recent rapprochement with Russia, which has adopted a similar approach, is one expression of this. That particular country is against foreign interference in the domestic politics of other countries and will put no obstacles whatsoever in President Erdogan’s path relating to democracy and human rights as the EU is currently doing, to his great annoyance, through the negotiation process. Whether Erdogan is aiming for an exact copy of the Russian model remains a matter for conjecture. The official line denies that improved ties with Moscow will come at the expense of loyalty to NATO and the relationship with Brussels. Moreover, there are still significant differences of opinion between the two countries, for example regarding Syria and the Crimea, and there is a history of deep mistrust between them.
Although continuation of the current policy does not guarantee that Turkey will remain on the straight and narrow, a sudden break because of the situation created by the coup attempt will only make things more complicated. This could have unintended strategic consequences and put pressure on the cooperation around the Syrian crisis, the fight against Isis and the refugee issue. It is true that the EU has clumsily created a relationship between stopping the flow of refugees and (stepping up) the negotiations for joining, but suddenly backing down would put the whole deal at stake. It should be noted that some politicians’ threats to stop are meant primarily for domestic consumption. I do not see the European Council deciding quickly and unanimously to take that step. The only common theme supported by all EU countries is immediate cessation in the event of Turkey reintroducing the death penalty. But right now, I don't see the vague promise to keep talking more actually coming to anything. On top of that, the most essential elements are being blocked by Cyprus, for which an agreement on reunification of the island will hopefully be reached before the end of the year.
Rapid liberalisation of visas has also become part of the refugee deal and there is a great deal more pressure there. Resistance to this in the EU is largely based on the fear – which is incidentally ill-founded – of an influx of Turks. You also often hear the opinion expressed that this is an inappropriate political reward for an increasingly undemocratic regime. Lifting the visa requirement is seen as a prize that Erdogan would love to take home. There is however a genuine risk that it could break the refugee deal. The EU can only accept liberalisation if Turkey eliminates the undemocratic provisions from its anti-terrorism legislation. So far, Ankara is refusing to do that. The Turkish government threatens regularly to withdraw from the refugee deal if no progress is made on visa liberalisation in the coming months. It is thereby implying that any Syrian refugees from the country will again be able to travel onwards en masse to Greece, with all the familiar consequences that entails. It is easy to imagine the uproar this would create in Europe.
Turkey does not give a stable impression by any means, of course. That has been the case for a long time. The fighting in south-eastern Turkey, the terrorist attacks, the economic problems (the tourism industry) and now the failed coup and the subsequent mass arrests and dismissals have had a disruptive effect that may have severe financial and economic consequences.
It may not be a member of the EU, but Turkey has already been a member of NATO for decades. The aftermath of the failed coup d'état and the direction that Turkey seems to be taking as a result are also making membership of that group awkward. Within the country itself, people are speculating openly about American involvement in the attempted coup, which did involve a significant part of a NATO army. The Americans have given sanctuary to Fethullah Gülen, seen by Ankara as a terrorist leader and who the Turks have asked to be extradited. This weakened confidence may affect the close military cooperation, although this seems to be in nobody's interest at the moment because of the war in Syria. There is a rumour that the US has transferred the nuclear weapons held in Turkey to Romania. Although the American government did deny this immediately, Washington is rightly concerned about the stability of its NATO partner and the visit of Vice President Biden is a very timely one. The risk of a genuine break is difficult to estimate because of the unpredictable dynamics within Turkey itself. It would seem to have no interest in a conflict with the Western allies. Russia is not an alternative option and strategic isolation in a volatile region is also not in Turkey's interests.
Restraint and caution seem to be warranted so that some control can be retained over the developments. This awareness is shared in many EU and NATO capitals. I expect that all the rhetoric – from both sides – will not get in the way of a pragmatic approach. But I don't know that for certain and everything is provisional. Negative sentiments may prevail and the rhetoric can then become political. The long-term interests in having a stable situation on a key EU border may succumb to the short-term desires of politicians who keep on bringing up those images of enemies. That is one strategic error that I hope they do not make.