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The unravelling of Turkey: a frightening illustration of a country unleashed from EU aspirations

The unravelling of Turkey - Credit: Archant

Turkey was on progressive path, but Europe sent it in a dangerous direction

It was like the dawn of a new age. On a crisp winter’s day back in 2004, Istanbul’s great and good and chic flocked to the inauguration of Istanbul Modern, a sparkling new contemporary art museum in converted warehouses on the shores of the Golden Horn.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s eager new Prime Minister, had made sure that the building was finished ahead of schedule. He wanted to use it as a voguish background to hold forth about Turkey’s ambitions to be a modern, forward-looking country worthy of EU membership. Less than a year later, long wished-for formal accession talks finally began.

At the event, Erdogan told me that he was worried that the Christian EU might have trouble with accepting a new Muslim country, but said that wouldn’t stop Turkey trying to fulfil all the criteria.

It seems hard to believe now, with Erdogan’s latter day transformation into an authoritarian president, but in those years, Turkey was going through a period of impressive economic and social progress.

All the trappings were there – the café culture, the arts, the fashion, the start-ups. Political and intellectual discourse became more sophisticated and open, so even at conventional middle class dinner parties people began to criticise the military’s role in politics and empathise with the plight of ethnic Kurds.

Politicians broke taboo after taboo on thorny issues such as Kurdish rights and the divided island of Cyprus – Ankara even successfully encouraged Turkish Cypriots to back a UN reunification plan, ignoring decades of red lines enforced by the nationalist establishment. In the name of EU harmonisation, a host of human rights reforms went through parliament. The very prospect of EU membership brought in foreign investors. Things were getting better by the day. It was exciting. It was breathtaking.

Yet Turkey today is a whole world away from what was supposed to be. The people are divided and broken, racism and ethnic strife is on the rise, the rule of law is being undermined, the media dangerously partisan, Erdogan is using the strong 50% support he has as a mandate to do what he wants – the tyranny of the majority, in other words – the currency has plunged and the country with a once-burgeoning economy has been downgraded by ratings agencies (does this all sound a bit too familiar, by the way, in post-Brexit UK?)

Six months ago there was a military coup attempt, allegedly engineered by a shadowy Muslim cleric once allied to Erdogan. In response, Erdogan has hardened further, and instituted what looks like a witch hunt. ISIS sympathisers and Kurdish rebels take turns to blow up various parts of the country.

Even the otherworldly fashionable crowd like those gathered at Istanbul Modern has been caught up, with an ISIS attack on a posh Istanbul night club and the mobbing and arrest of a designer who dared to criticise the government. In April, Turks will vote in what will no doubt be a divisive and unpleasant referendum on increasing Erdogan’s powers and abolishing the role of prime minister.

It’s a stark contrast for those of us who lived through those heady days. So what went so badly wrong? Yes, there’s the usual hubris of a leader in charge for too long, untroubled by a woeful opposition and bolstered by sycophantic advisers. But more than that, Turkey’s radical transformation is a frightening illustration of what can happen to a country unleashed from EU aspirations.

Eurosceptics and federalists alike enjoy criticising EU expansion, but the lure of EU membership has often been a force for good – witness the transformation of eastern European countries. The results might not be perfect, as Romania’s current travails show, but the aspiration has moved many a regime in the right direction.

Turkey’s experience should stand as a cautionary tale for those thinking in the wake of Brexit and the US elections, and with the prospect of further upset in France, that the bloc should indulge in a bit of navel gazing. A functioning, reasonable, outward-looking EU is as vital today as it ever has been as a target for potentially wayward countries. The unravelling of Turkey isn’t an argument against reaching out, but demonstrates instead the catastrophic consequences of not taking it seriously enough.

To see how things turn sour, we need to go back again to the early noughties. First, the EU allowed the accession of Cyprus, even though it was still divided, since Greek Cypriots, unlike Turkish Cypriots, had rejected the UN’s last-ditch peace plan. This meant that Cyprus and its ally Greece, both with a lengthy history of enmity with Turkey, were able to wield a veto on every level of Turkey’s accession process.

Soon after the start, Turkey’s negotiations were frozen because Ankara would not open its ports and airspace to Cyprus, which it still refused to recognise without a reunification deal.

‘Clearly that decision was devastating. Countries made a calculation and for the prize of getting the eastern Europeans into the EU and consolidating their democracy post-Cold War, we all accepted being blackmailed by Greece over Cyprus. And it was utterly predictable what was going to happen next,’ one EU diplomat said.

Things got worse. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had already said that Turkey would be better off with an associate membership rather than the real thing – something that Ankara found insulting at the time. But then, in 2005, Nicolas Sarkozy replaced the more pro-Turkish Jacques Chirac to become president of France.

A senior Turkish diplomat told me: ‘Sarkozy started saying that even if Cyprus was solved, even if we met all the membership criteria, Turkey should not join the EU as it was not a true European country. He opposed the opening of many negotiating chapters. What with the Greek vetoes, that was it, really. We were so motivated to reform, but the wind was completely taken out of our sails… It was so counterproductive…’

Turks’ worst fears appeared to be confirmed – the 80% public support for EU membership has slid down to less than
half that. The EU was, after all, a Christian club, went the consensus, and doesn’t
want us. Well, in that case, Brussels can go hang.

‘I would go as far as saying that if Europeans had not behaved like that, Turkey would not be in the situation we find it in today,’ the Turkish diplomat continued. A man with extensive experience in Turkey’s EU adventure, he pointed out that had Greece not prevented Turkey even opening two key chapters of negotiation on core EU values – Chapter 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and 24 on justice, freedom and security – politicians would find it harder to meddle with the judiciary and sanction rampant rights abuses. ‘That was pretty unwise of them on all levels. Really short sighted.’

Without letting Erdogan off the hook, EU diplomats I spoke to agree with that assessment. US officials have said the same, and chastised Europe for losing Turkey. The blindingly bad hand played collectively by the EU and several key members, when Ankara was at its most compliant, upset the thin-skinned Erdogan.

With no clear incentive to tame his growing thirst for power for what was becoming an impossible goal, Erdogan slowly lost interest. Why shouldn’t he behave like Vladimir Putin if doing otherwise helped him not a jot? It hadn’t gained him friends at home (many pro-western secularists are still suspicious) nor, apparently, abroad.

As soon as Erdogan started to say ‘if they don’t want us we will replace the Copenhagen (entry) criteria with the Ankara criteria’, it was pretty much over. For as long as I can remember, anything good that ever happened in Turkey seemed to have the carrot of EU membership attached to it – from the abolishment of the death penalty back in 2002 to ending the practice of lenience towards those guilty of honour killings.

But now, rather than seeking to please the West and the modernisers, Erdogan began to please himself and Turkey’s isolationist, nationalist hardliners, and the good things began to come to an end. Clearly, he was ahead of his time, as the rise of protectionist nativism across the world has shown, but that doesn’t make it better.

Turkey’s waywardness has, of course, strengthened the hand of those opposed to its cause, creating a vicious circle. Whenever Turkey is criticised by angry Westerners for this or that latest misdemeanour, I remember a conversation I had a couple of years ago with one of Erdogan’s advisers: ‘The West has changed its tune, not us,’ he snarled. ‘And quite frankly, we no longer care what they think.’

Can Turkey’s bid be rescued? Unless there is some game-changing success in the latest round of talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriots to try and end the UN’s longest-running border dispute, Turkey’s membership will remain on ice for the foreseeable future. Even then, the European public is not behind further enlargement, so where would the political will come from? And while Erdogan clearly can’t see any value in breaking off the relationship completely, he won’t be bothering to improve things for a while.

When I called up a senior EU official to discuss this article, he didn’t know where to focus his despair, although the words were upbeat: ‘we are of course busy seeking solutions’, he forced himself to say.

Where to start? There’s Brexit, of course, and Romania’s troubles, the rise of the far right, Greece on the brink of another bailout, not to mention the effects of Trump and fears for upcoming elections. It’s fair to say that the EU is already facing the biggest threats in its history, with populists in charge in Hungary and Poland and others at establishment heels in France, Italy and Germany.

Yet there are still many people, the official said, who believe an outward-looking EU is vital. ‘Members who did not, say, live under communism like the eastern European countries, don’t appreciate how important this is – how the people are happy to trade a portion of what they might call sovereignty in exchange for a chance to share in our values.’

And as well as Turkey, there are countries such as Albania, Serbia and Montenegro still waiting their turn – what will happen to them?

‘It’s almost impossible to see enlargement at the moment. We can’t even get solidarity with the 27!’ he exclaimed. In any case, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has said that enlargement would not happen for several years. ‘But it’s important to keep talking,’ the official said. ‘What you don’t want is for Balkan countries to start unravelling.’

Many things in the EU will have to change, he said, including how membership is defined. Maybe Britain, while abandoning the EU, will have gifted Turkey a lifeline, he added, by creating a path to a multi-speed Europe – which Britain’s opt-out heavy version was de facto creating anyway. One version could allow some to join economically – something Turkey, with the ongoing process of deepening its customs union is already on its way towards. Other keener members could sign up to social and political pledges. If both were seen as forms of full membership, then this formula could avoid becoming the ‘insulting’ lesser membership option from the Sarkozy days.

But it strikes me that it’s the social and political side that Turkey – any many other supplicants – could do with. Fashion and textile industry figures used to tell me that, as far as they were concerned, Turkey already had all the bits of the EU that it wanted – economic advantages without all the costly ‘social crap’, they almost said. Yet it’s often the ‘social crap’, including greater workers’ rights, that helps make these countries better.

Remainers have often focused on the EU’s role in keeping peace in Europe since the world wars, but the expansion plans have spread that effect further afield. With subsequent developments in mind, I find rereading my 2004 Istanbul Modern interview with Erdogan rather chilling:

‘Accepting a country that has brought together Islam and democracy will bring about harmony between civilisations. If, on the other hand, it is not welcomed, the world will have to put up with the present situation (at the time, he was referring to Al-Qaeda terrorism)… That is a very clear and present danger and it is all around us today. There is nothing we can do if the EU feels that it can live with being simply a Christian club, but if these countries burn their bridges with the rest of the world, history will not forgive them.’

The war in Syria has hurt Turkey in many ways, but the migrant crisis has forced the EU to engage with Ankara once more, via the deal brokered between Merkel and Erdogan to keep more refugees in Turkey. The process has, at times, been acrimonious, and Turkish diplomats are disgruntled that the EU only seems to remember Ankara these days when it needs something, but it is working.

And as for Turkey’s cosying up to Putin and ‘just can’t help it’ admiration for Trump, Erdogan is unlikely to get what he wants from either, and might then remember more fondly the fact that Turkey is a member of many Euro-centric alliances and NATO.

Brexit keeps putting its oar in, though. The UK has always been one of the most enthusiastic backers of Turkey’s membership and, post-Brexit, will not be there to help. And Turkish diplomats have complained that in the post-Brexit climate of snub and counter-snub, Britain’s absence from the upcoming celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome has led to candidate countries not being invited either.

‘If they want to leave, that’s their problem,’ said one. ‘But we want to be part of it yet we are not included in the celebrations. It’s an alarming lack of vision on the EU’s part.’

It’s an irony not lost on Turks, after all that referendum kerfuffle over here about Turkey’s impending membership, that any Brits who voted Leave in response to those phantom talks the Daily Mail wrote about have actually ended up importing a bit of Turkey to British shores. ‘Welcome to our world,’ they say as they survey the sharp social divisions that have emerged, the hostility towards minorities or foreigners and the newspaper headlines calling judges ‘enemies of the people’.

Likewise, when Trump was elected and continued to be volatile in office, liberal Turks were shocked to find that the much-admired West was not so different after all.

For those grasping at the straws of amusement in troubled times, there’s also this: the UK referendum has meant that Turkey and the UK now share a period of political turbulence marked by a member of the Johnson family loudly campaigning against the direction in which the whole country was going. Boris Johnson’s great grandfather fared less well than the current foreign secretary. Ali Kemal was a liberal Turkish journalist who opposed Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founding father, and died after being lynched by a mob and hanged from a tree.

Yet in this mad time when the world looks like it might resemble a Turkish dystopia, dispirited Turks do wonder, ‘wasn’t it supposed to be the other way round?’

Suna Erdem is a freelance journalist and former Turkey correspondent for The Times and Reuters

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