Turkey beyond Erdogan: How the EU risks letting down Turkish democrats

The Turkish president no longer commands all before him. The EU should turn its attention to supporting democratic forces in the country.

A man on a rooftop waves a Turkish flag above a square full of protestors
Miguel Carminati CC BY-SA

This commentary is part of an ECFR discussion on a positive agenda for the EU and Turkey. The discussion includes previous commentaries by Ibrahim Kalin and Miguel Berger.

Kati Piri is a member of the Dutch Parliament.

After being held at arm’s length for several years, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is to meet with Western leaders once again. Last week he saw US president Joe Biden, as well as several NATO and EU leaders. Next week, the European Council will decide whether to deliver on the European Union’s past promise of a “positive agenda” with Turkey – and maybe even upgrade trade relations between the two.

Early last year, Erdogan began openly encouraging hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross the border into Greece, where people got stuck in no man’s land at the border. Last summer, a military confrontation between Turkey and EU member states appeared to become a serious threat, caused by disputes over Turkey’s exploratory gas drillings in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus. Meanwhile, Turkey’s supposed EU accession process has made no difference to its growing abuse of democracy and fundamental rights.

For years now, since the ‘refugee deal’ in 2016, the EU has held fast to a transactional Turkey policy, living in fear of the impact of renewed migrant arrivals and, more broadly, uncertain as to how to slow the democratic backsliding in its large neighbour. There was no political will in Europe to use the instruments at its disposal to try to halt Erdogan’s autocratic trend. In so doing, it side-stepped the values-based membership process.

Last summer’s crises caused Brussels to rethink its policy. But, instead of focusing on Turkey’s democratic record, the EU is playing the economic card in order to keep Erdogan cool: later this month, EU leaders will gather at a summit with Turkey, bringing with them proposals to modernise and upgrade the two sides’ longstanding customs union by adding to it services, right of establishment, public procurement, and agriculture. This would be a major deal for Ankara, as the EU is Turkey’s key trade partner and Erdogan is currently grappling with an economic downturn. In return, Brussels is seeking a new deal on migration and calm in the eastern Mediterranean. European Council president Charles Michel has repeated the language of a “positive agenda” in his hopes for the talks. What EU leaders want is a Turkish foreign policy that is not diametrically opposed to Europe’s interests. 

EU leaders are ignoring the political reality of Turkey today: the president no longer has the support of most of the population

But such talk jars, given that human rights are absent from the proposed dialogue. The EU is looking to forge this new agreement all while Erdogan: continues to jail his political opponents; threatens to close down the pro-Kurdish HDP party; arrests student protesters; withdraws from the Istanbul Convention; and ignores verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights on such high-profile cases as the imprisonment of civil society leader Osman Kavala and imprisonment of Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas. What a timing for a ‘positive’ agenda!

Times are changing – in Turkey and Europe

EU leaders are assuming that there is no alternative to Erdogan. But they are ignoring the political reality of Turkey today. The president no longer has the support of most of the population – the ‘other Turkey’ made up of the people who defend what the EU proclaims as its basic values.

Indeed, Erdogan’s political standing is weaker than first appears. The largest Turkish cities are now all governed by opposition parties. His falling domestic support – for the first time since taking power, his AKP party no longer has a majority in the Turkish parliament – means not only that the president no longer carries all before him, but that there is a constituency in Turkey that will draw strength from external voices in support of their cause. Economically, Turkey is highly dependent on the European market and foreign investors. And, regionally, Erdogan’s relations with Vladimir Putin have soured and continue to fester because of Syria. There is also a limit on how far he can go in provoking NATO partners in the eastern Mediterranean. And, last but not least, Erdogan is faced with the reality that there is a new president in the White House, one who cares about protecting democratic norms. So assuming that the EU is the weaker partner is wrong.

The upcoming summit risks bolstering the Turkish president’s position. Brussels has shown itself to be unwilling to use its economic muscle to get Erdogan to change his behaviour. Instead, he will conclude that his intensified clampdown on the opposition poses no obstacle to better relations with Brussels. It is also a slap in the face to imprisoned journalists and arrested politicians. The proposed opening cannot be justified by any positive steps that Erdogan has taken at home – because there are none.

What makes this even more painful is the fact that the EU did not hesitate to sanction Russia and Belarus on human rights grounds as each country respectively pursued Alexey Navalny and cracked down on democratic protests. No unity exists on sanctioning Turkey, as the migrant gatekeeper has a fair few friends in EU capitals and, after all, is an important NATO member. 

As the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, I proposed to officially halt membership negotiations with Turkey due to its poor human rights record, but I never called for its complete isolation. We need to continue cooperation on migration, as Turkey still hosts some four million Syrian refugees. The EU must offer to extend substantial financial support for refugees, do more to resettle vulnerable refugees, and convince Greece to stop illegal pushbacks.

But offering better trade conditions without any conditions on democratic reforms would be a real waste of the strongest card the EU has. As long as Turkey refuses to implement verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights, it would be a bad signal to greenlight the start of negotiations on upgrading the EU-Turkey customs union. And, in the longer term, rather than investing in a future with Erdogan, the EU should instead invest in closer cooperation with democratic forces in Turkey. They are the ones who believe in democratic values and are able to win hearts and minds in Turkey – which the voters confirm in the polls. As change will have to come from within, the most important contribution the EU and the US could make would be to stand up for the rule of law, fair elections, and free media. Turkey’s democrats will remember whose side the West was on when it really mattered.

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

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