Tuesday’s (16 December) meeting of the General Affairs Council is going to have to take a fresh look at the EU’s deteriorating relationship with Turkey. It is at any case this time of year that the Council re-assesses the enlargement policy of the Union. The Council’s deliberations bear upon what are dubbed, somewhat euphemistically, ‘Progress Reports’ from the Commission which is responsible for conducting accession negotiations on behalf of the member states. The current assessment will be the first since Jean-Claude Juncker, the new Commission President, declared that there will be no new state joining the EU during his five year mandate. In truth, there are very few candidates. Norway is too rich too join and Iceland has taken fright. The seven countries of the Western Balkans have a long way – some a very long way to travel in terms of achieving essential qualities of statehood let alone the necessary capacity to pool their sovereignty and integrate their economies within the EU. (We need not go here to Moldova or the Ukraine.)
Only Turkey remains. After having been granted accession country status in 2005, only one of the 33 chapters (R&D) has both been opened and closed. Progress on the other chapters has been imperceptible despite the dogged optimism of Stefan Fule, enlargement Commissioner under President Barroso. At a technical level the continuing exercise is worthwhile in aligning officialdom and in helping companies do business in each other’s markets. Some ‘pre-accession’ EU money has been usefully deployed in infrastructure projects and in helping civil society in Turkey to advance. The largest delegation of the External Accession Service sits in Ankara, waiting the day when both parties in the relationship will decide that they really want to live together.
This Turkey will not join this European Union
But that day is not foreseeable. Even at a technical level, Turkey does not apply all the rules of its customs union with the EU (notably on public procurement), and there is next to no chance that Turkey will be included in the TTIP negotiations. Liberalisation of visas and implementation of the readmission agreement for irregular migrants remain agonisingly slow. Obdurate Turkey refuses to recognise the Republic of Cyprus. Many of the accession chapters are blocked because one or other EU state opposes Turkish membership on grounds which are highly political and sometimes prejudicial. Only one country, the United Kingdom, still makes friendly noises about Turkey’s eventual membership – but that very same country is itself thinking of leaving the EU. In any case, British support for Turkey provokes real suspicion in other capitals that its true motive in widening the Union to include Turkey is to weaken European integration.
The real problem, however, rests with Turkey itself. In the early years, the Kemalists who ran Turkey wanted to join the EU as an insurance policy against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and as an economic adjunct of NATO to which military alliance the Turks are still at least formally committed, as well as a way of wreaking revenge on Greece for its historic insults. When the Islamists took over in 2002, the EU was seen as an important guarantor of the human rights whose abuse at the hands of the Kemalists had caused many Islamic brethren, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to be imprisoned. The prospect of EU accession also played well with the rapidly expanding industrial middle class of Anatolia, who supported the AKP, the new ruling party, in very large numbers.
Gradually AKP’s commitment to Europe has declined. After years of tinkering with the Turkish constitution there have been minor improvements but not the radical overhaul it needs to meet EU norms. Torture is proscribed, but the administration of justice remains slow, poor and unfair.
A number of AKP high-ups, notably Ahmet Davutoglu, now prime minister, has never been willing to sacrifice Turkish sovereignty in order to join the Western liberal community which if not Christian is godless. Davutoglu’s goal is for Turkey to lead a neo-Ottoman revival across the Middle East and North Africa. AKP founder and former President Abdullah Gul performs well on the Chatham House circuit that still treats Turkey as if it were a natural ally of the West. But the old school of smooth talking Turkish diplomats is now dying out, and Gul himself a staunch AKP militant – finds himself more at home in Arabia than Europe.
Erdogan flays his enemies
Erdogan himself knows very little about the EU. On his rare visits to Brussels he tends to shout loudly and act prickly. At home, he flays first one supposed enemy then another. The armed forces, the bankers, the students, gay rights activists, the Americans – not forgetting the Europeans have all been traduced. Then he turned ferociously against his former ally Fethullah Gulen when the Imam had the temerity to criticise the AKP government, quite justifiably, for large-scale corruption.
Since Sunday many journalists who align themselves with Hizmet, the Gulenist movement, are under arrest for a range of exotic charges. Gulen himself is an enigmatic character, with a long history of religious activism. Now in self-imposed exile, implausibly in Pennsylvania, he oversees a vast network of high-minded Islamic schools and charities in Turkey and elsewhere. Whatever Gulen is, he and his followers do not seem to me to have the makings of terrorists or plotters of a coup d’état, as Erdogan claims.
In power now for too long, Erdogan is corrupted. Not only has he lost the once-beguiling charm of the moderniser, but he has adopted the mantle of the ultra-nationalists. He speaks of Turkish North Cyprus in the same tones as Putin speaks of Crimea, sacred duty and all. His earlier efforts to recognise the Kurdish problem, including his careful talks with the rebellious Kurds, have soured with his refusal to help the Kurds against the Sunni fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, some in Western intelligence suspect Erdogan gives tacit support for ISIS. It is clear at the very least that EU/NATO is not successful in aligning Turkish foreign and security policy with that of the West.
Erdogan knows how to be elected democratically but not to govern so. The opposition parties are insulted. Religious and cultural minorities, notably the Alevis, are discriminated against. The liberal media, NGOs and universities are assailed. The reform of mainstream state education is neglected in favour of Islamic hatip schools. Secular liberal Turkey is challenged by the rise of conservative Islamic family policy. In short, Turkey is becoming less and less European.
Although some are still optimistic – such as the eminent authors of a recent Carnegie report – I am not. In fact, as a long-standing Turcophile I want much better for both the EU and Turkey than this desperate fictive enlargement. The membership ‘negotiations’ are at best useless and at worst fraudulent: they should now be suspended.
The new High Rep Federica Mogherini and Fule’s successor Johannes Hahn made a bold statement on Sunday (14 December) against the arrest of the journalists from Zaman and other Gulenist media. They said that ‘this operation goes against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of’. It would be wrong in these circumstances for the Council to ignore the fact that Turkey no longer fulfils the Copenhagen membership criteria within the margin of error.
The new Junckerite broom should be deployed to sweep away the charade of an ‘accession process’ with Turkey. Instead, a deep and honest reflection is needed about what kind of durable, strategic partnership between Ankara and Brussels is in our best long-term mutual interest. To deny the facts of the matter will demonstrate Europe’s weakness and leave us to be harmed for many more years by the doleful affairs to the East of Czar Vladimir the Bad and Sultan Tayyip the Fierce.