EU-Turkey relations after July 15: Turning the page

A complex and explosive mixture of misunderstandings, bad blood and unrecognised but shared interests has brought EU-Turkey relationship to a critical juncture.

Two months after the attempted coup on July 15 the mood in Turkey is still defined by trauma and jubilation. The 265 deaths made this coup far bloodier than previous ones and most Turks believe that it could have plunged the country into civil war had it succeeded.  Relief at its failure is mixed with fear of what might have been and, in some quarters, of the government’s response. Over 100,000 people have been detained or fired, media outlets are being closed and companies are being confiscated as the counter-coup purge reshapes Turkish politics, economics and foreign policy.

There is now also an almost unbridgeable gulf between the perceptions of these events in Turkey and those in the EU.

The reaction of EU institutions and member states to the coup was slow and cautioned against overreach in the aftermath. Among most Turkish politicians (oppositional CHP and HDP excluded) there is a firm impression that this was feeble and unsupportive at best. Europe is perceived as having not fully understood the significance of what happened and the consequences it could have had.

Some see European decision makers’ lack of sympathy as expressing tolerance of the coup attempt, and as a visible manifestation of Europe’s broader attitude to Turkey. This was described by one high ranking Turkish official as “like a matryoshka doll – it has Erdoganophobia on the outside, then xenophobia and racism, then anti-semitism, and Europhobia at the core.”

On the other hand, in European capitals Turkey is seen in increasingly hostile terms. Even before the coup many Europeans were drawing comparisons between the tendencies towards over-centralisation of power of the Turkish and Russian Presidents. After July 15 the crackdown on media outlets, the education system and the judiciary was seen as confirmation of the authoritarian nature of President Erdogan.

The perceptions gap between Europe and Turkey is also at the heart of disputes over the deal signed in March to manage refugee flows. This comes under review from both sides in October, and a decision about visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens has to be made. Many European governments argue that the reason visas have not been liberalized (and why money pledged by the EU as part of this deal has not been disbursed) is that Turkey has failed to uphold its side of the deal.  As the migration and refugee crisis becomes more central to EU politics there is also a temptation by many parties to criticise Turkey in order to project ‘toughness’ on migration issues.

Turkey sees Europe’s treatment of refugees as sub-standard (with the exception of Italy, which rescues thousands of refugees coming by sea) and, given Turkey’s stalled bid for EU membership, not delivering on the deal is yet another blow to the troubled relationship. There is a danger that the relationship could deteriorate quickly, with some EU governments calling for the accession process to be suspended, while Turkey is intensifying its post-coup purge. 

In order to get past the current standoff and forge a relationship that would serve both Europe and Turkey’s interests, there is a need for a change in tone in the short term and a change in perceptions in the longer term. We need to examine what Europe got wrong about Turkey and vice versa, what are the possible levers the EU may have over Turkey and what are the steps that can be taken to change the atmosphere of mistrust and the cynicism of a transactional relationship.

What Europe got wrong about Turkey

There is consensus across the board among the Turkish political parties that the Gulenists were responsible for plotting and executing the coup attempt (although so far no one has been able to prove Fetulah Gulen’s direct involvement). Several ministers in Ankara compared the coup with the 9/11 terror attacks and said that the war on the Gulen movement could have as far-reaching consequences for Turkish foreign and domestic policy as the Global War on Terror had for George W. Bush. At the same time, there is a victorious mood and a feeling that the Turkish people and Turkish democracy has prevailed.

It was only on July 16 – the day after the coup – that most European decision makers began to address the Gulenist conspiracy.1 This is remarkable since it has been obvious to Turkey observers that the AKP/Gulen fight has been a driving force in Turkey’s domestic development for the last three years.

Fethullah Gulen has, since the 1970s (before AKP came to power), been carefully placing his followers  “inside the veins of the state system” (as per one of his famous sermons from 1997). Since the ascension of Erdogan’s AKP in 2002, Gulenists have taken over critical sections of the bureaucracy, judiciary, police, and education systems. Opposition parties made clear that Gulen appointees did not “infiltrate” the bureaucracy during this period but were deliberately appointed by the AKP in a bid to displace other enemies of the state. However, most of Turkey's diplomatic and economic bureaucracy remained in the control of Gulenists even after the coalition between the AKP and Gulen broke down at the end of 2013.

Since the attempted coup, the AKP has been reassessing the impact of Gulenists on policy in recent times. In our meetings with Turkish officials in late August, Gulenists were blamed for the brutality against the Gezi protesters, for Turkey's past failure to act decisively against ISIS, and even for shooting down a Russian jet last November, claims which are hard to believe.

Of less dispute is the fact that the purge of Gulenists has resulted in the return of many secular officials to higher levels of the administration. In our meetings we were struck by the number of secular advisers and senior female officials who had returned to key jobs in the administration. Should this trend hold, it might change the spirit of the Turkish state machinery and present new opportunities to engage Ankara around rule of law and terrorism issues.

Rule of law after the coup

Across the political spectrum, there was a sense that the military coup attempt on July 15 was the most serious attack against the constitutional order that Turkey has seen in its recent history, and that it would have plunged the country into civil war had it succeeded. Cross-party support has enabled further  centralisation of power in the hands of the President, who is now the largely undisputed head of the executive. And while the post-coup crackdown has been broad and swift, there is widespread acceptance of its necessity.

While the government seems to take a maximalist position in the Gulen investigations, they have several methods of identifying active Gulenists, ranging from affiliation with Gulen schools, accounts at Gulen banks, donations to the group, or the use of a secret mobile application used by the plotters, to which 39,000 people had access.

While there is consensus that the emergency situation should and will end after its legal duration of three months, many prosecutors and the judiciary feel compelled by media and public expectation to over-deliver. This snap-back has resulted in the detention of many people not associated with the Gulenists, including members of the intelligentsia and selected opposition activists; excessive violence; and the imprisonment of journalists who have merely worked for Gulenist media outlets.

The opposition, the media and many even within the government are privately worried about over-reach and about ensuring that there are mechanisms to correct false detentions and arrests. It was suggested that the most powerful ways to address these issues would be by opening chapters 23 and 24 in the accession negotiations and using the Council of Europe.

State of the economy

The sudden vulnerability of the Turkish state exposed by the coup attempt surprised everybody. This, along with the counter-coup purge, could have a major effect on the economy. Around 1,000 companies directly associated with the Gulenist movement and some assets owned by Gulenists have been seized. There has been a noticeable freeze in investment since the coup, which comes on top of the hit experienced in the tourist sector since the beginning of 2016.

The business community is clearly hoping that the purge will come to an end soon and that confidence in the Turkish economy will be restored. But officials talked up the resilience of the economy, stating that the hit it had taken remained insignificant in terms of the overall size of the Turkish economy. Officials predicted economic growth of around 4 percent for the current year.

Some of our interlocutors expressed concern that, given high public mobilisation and tight government control of media, a slow-down of the economy is one of the few factors that could act as a break on centralisation.

Post-coup foreign policy

“The coup was our 9/11 and Gulen is our Al-Qaeda”, was the explanation of one senior figure who predicted that the crackdown on Gulen will become a central feature of Turkish foreign policy and major pre-occupation of its diplomatic service[CQ1] . The full range of its bilateral relations could be affected by demands to close schools and other organisations associated with Gulen, while some countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, have been labelled “Gulenist regimes”.

Although much debated in Europe, the warming up of relations between Moscow and Ankara is not considered a crucial strategic shift in Turkey. “Turkey is not pivoting towards Russia… (but) we want to come back to the situation prior to the airplane accident, to trade, exchange in tourism and energy”. Russia does not seem to be part of Turkey's calculations on Syria, or to have changed Ankara's stance on other critical security issues like its alliance with NATO, security in the Black Sea, or its opposition to the annexation of Crimea. Turkey and Russia also continue to disagree on the future of Assad, with Ankara insisting on his departure as a precondition for a political deal.

One of the biggest challenges is that all foreign policy in this period will be subordinate to domestic politics. Thus the success of Turkish diplomacy will be measured on its success in targeting and closing down Gulenists institutions abroad.

What Turkey got wrong about Europe

If the EU has struggled to understand Turkey, Turkey has also struggled to understand the EU. Three things stand out in Turkey’s view of Europe: Ankara’s pivot to a Berlin-centric view of the EU, its failure to understand EU processes, and the incompatibility of its worldview with that of the Union.

A Berlin-centric view

For many years Ankara operated with a Brussels-centric vision of Europe, which has now been replaced by a Berlin-centric one. The complex and interconnected nature of European decision-making, in which every capital has a veto, is not entirely clear or rational to Turkish policymakers.

Misunderstanding EU processes

 On the EU-Turkey refugee deal, Turkish officials often fail to distinguish between bureaucratic and political obstacles to Europe delivering on the deal. Because of bureaucratic delays in the payment of the pledged €3 billion for Syrian refugee projects, Turkey doubts Europe’s commitment to keeping its promises.


 In Ankara, there is more and more of a tendency to view the world through the prism of power politics, something that encourages a cynical view of foreign partners. While Europeans emphasise the importance of an independent judiciary, Turks prioritise ridding it of Gulen supporters. Ankara does not trust Europe’s supposedly values-based concern, seeing it instead as a cynical attempt to pressure Turkey or keep it at arm’s length from the European sphere.


In the decades ahead, irrespective of how the formal relationship evolves, the EU and Turkey will be dependent upon each other and will need to cooperate effectively to manage the challenges of a neighbourhood racked with instability.  Much has been made of the EU’s dependence on Turkey for managing the refugee crisis, but Turkey also depends on the west both economically and for its security.  Given this independence, both should take steps to avoid a further deterioration in the relationship. For the EU, this effort should focus on three main priorities:

By default rather than design, dialogue between Turkey and the EU has deteriorated, although there was a short-term improvement after the EU-Turkey refugee deal in early 2016. The pattern emerging is one of bilateral arrangements with member states rather than EU-wide initiatives. This increases the chances of disappointment, as individual states make commitments that the EU as a whole fails to deliver. The EU should seek agreement on twice-yearly high-level summits with Turkey – independently of any structures of the accession process.

Monitor human rights and the judiciary in post-coup Turkey

The issue of Turkish EU membership remains controversial in a number of EU countries, and there are also signs of hesitation in Turkey itself.  But in spite of mutual suspicion and disappointment, it would be detrimental to suspend the accession process entirely. To do so could have considerable collateral damage – both on Turkish opposition groups as well as on the Turkey-EU relationship. 

Opposition parties and human rights groups argued that the accession process could provide a framework for the EU to influence the major constitutional changes that Turkey is likely to initiate over the next two years. It would be a mistake for the EU to lose this opportunity. In particular, opening chapters 23 and 24 of the accession process would provide a framework for tough discussion with Turkey on rule of law and human rights issues. A probable opening in the Cyprus talks could facilitate such a step.

The Council of Europe could play a key role in a wider monitoring of Turkey’s post-coup human rights situation, the independence of the judiciary, and freedom of media. Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland has established a dialogue of trust with the Turkish authorities and Turkey has committed itself to respecting the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights.

Refugees, visas and the war on terror

Implementation thus far of the EU-Turkey refugee deal may not have been perfect, but it has demonstrated that a relationship based on mutual interest on difficult subjects can work.

From the Turkish point of view, the granting of visa-free travel for holders of biometric passports is of great importance. EU leaders should acknowledge that this is also in Europe’s interest – primarily because it will make the economic relationship easier. Moreover, there is little to be feared given that only approximately 5 percent of the Turkish population holds a biometric passport. The cost of acquiring one also makes it unlikely that this figure will increase dramatically in the short term.

When it comes to counter-terrorism, Turkey’s legitimate concerns should be addressed by the EU. No European country is as endangered and affected by terrorism today as Turkey, whether from ISIS, the PKK or the Gulen movement. A robust stance by the EU against the PKK, for example, would make it easier to argue for a renewal of discussions on wider Kurdish issues, as well as improve counter-terror co-operation between the EU and Turkey.


A complex and explosive mixture of misunderstandings, bad blood and unrecognised but shared interests has brought the EU-Turkey relationship to a critical juncture. A change of tone and style is urgently needed. In this regard, the current round of high-level visits from Europe are a welcome first step.


This commentary is based on a visit to Ankara by a group of ECFR Council Members and staff, led by ECFR Co-Chair Carl Bildt, between August 31 and September 2. Their meetings included President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Yildirim, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, EU Minister Omer Celik, the leader of the main opposition party – the CHP – Kemal Kilicdaroglu, representatives from the pro-Kurdish HDP, journalists, and experts on the Gulen movement.

This project was made possible by funding from the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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