The EU’s positive agenda in its Turkey policy is based on wrong assumptions where Europe’s strategic interests lie.
It has become pretty much customary in Turkey for political decisions that may spark a crisis of state in other countries to be quite simply made overnight.
When Turkish citizens awoke last Saturday morning, it was to discover that their President had fired the recently elected head of the central bank, taken the country out of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and removed the highly symbolic Gezi Park from the control of the opposition-led municipality of Istanbul.
All three of these points are of relevance for the country’s relationship with the EU. The respected central bank chief was a guarantor for a more stable monetary policy, which would in turn reassure the country’s many European investors, while the so-called Istanbul Convention constitutes a watershed moment foreshadowing potential future repression against civil society. Gezi Park, which gave its name to the anti-government protests of 2013 in response to its proposed redevelopment, represents the question of whether the government is prepared to make compromises with its opponents, or is determined to bulldoze away all symbols of the opposition.
President Erdogan has responded to all three points with decisions that run counter to what the EU aspires to make the country into: a democratic Turkey that can be a reliable partner for Europe.
Just a few hours earlier, Erdogan had had a telephone call with European Commission President von der Leyen and European Council President Michel. The press statement published afterwards makes no mention of any of the events that were shortly to unfold. Even worse, it makes not so much as a passing reference to the rapidly worsening human rights situation.
The EU outgunned by Turkey – as is so often the case
As is so often the case, one can only conclude that the EU has been completely outgunned by the Turkish actions. As is so often the case, it is the Turkish President setting the agenda, with the Europeans able to do no more than follow along behind breathlessly and, very often, helplessly as well. Of course, it must be argued that the EU can hardly be blamed for not being able to foresee the future. In a country such as Turkey, where anything seems politically possible at any time, it is impossible to be prepared for all eventualities. But the actions of Friday, 19 March are just the latest round in an escalating spiral of domestic politics that their starting point latest 2013 and maybe even as early as 2008.
Over the years, Brussels has consistently reacted with the same old platitudes – expressing “deep concern”, for instance. While the EU is busy being concerned, the Turkish government is busy creating facts on the ground. Although Thursday’s meeting of the EU heads of state and governments did consider potential sanctions against Turkey these would only target Ankara’s increasingly aggressive actions in the Mediterranean. Human rights and the rule of law in Turkey were summarized in barely a paragraph, noting that „dialogue on such issues remains an integral part of the EU-Turkey relationship.“ Everyone in Ankara knows that sentences as such rarely bear any consequences and that business can continue more or less as usual Brussels and European capitals.
The EU calls this approach, which recycles the same unrealistic incentives of customs union modernisation or visa-free travel through the zone, a “positive agenda”. In this roadmap, similar to what we have seen since accession talks started with Turkey, the European Commission comes up with technocratic answers to very political problems. Fully aware of Brussels’ assessment methods, the Turkish government recently introduced a new human rights action plan, which looks good on paper, but does not hold much remedy to the many legal and political ills that have befallen the country. The problem as so often in Turkey is not what is in writing, but in the political reality on the ground, that belies any intent by the government to improve the situation. However the EU prefers to hang on to every straw continuing with its roadmap.
The heart of the matter, to Berlin and others, is clear: no matter what the cost, the relationship with Turkey must remain stable and so, as far as possible, must Turkey itself. When Chancellor Merkel met representatives of Turkish civil society in Istanbul a few years ago, they told her in detail about the rapidly unravelling human rights situation. The Chancellor listened and replied that she was course aware of all these issues, but in view of the refugee crisis, that was not her priority. That might be Realpolitik par excellence; Merkel is first and foremost the Chancellor of Germany, not of Turkey.
However this raises not only the question of what domestic policy price the Turkish people must pay for this Realpolitik, which Berlin and Brussels may callously dismiss as regrettable collateral damage, but also whether in the medium term, the continuation of this policy will not undermine European interests themselves.
One problem of German foreign policy has always been self-miniaturisation
What good is a partnership if one partner keeps constantly changing foreign policy direction in order to hold onto its own domestic power? How stable is a state if its head of government bases his election campaign strategy on polarising his own people? Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy are closely interlinked. While a rapprochement with Europe is currently on the agenda, this could just as easily be sacrificed in the next election campaign, if that would serve his purposes better. This is not only a Turkish problem, it also directly threatens European interests.
One issue with German and European foreign policy has always been self-miniaturisation. As long as you keep referring to the constraints of Realpolitik, you don’t have to tackle the question of how to empower your foreign policy. You don’t have to be an idealist to see that the balance of power between Turkey and the EU is very much in favour of the latter. The Turkish President has managed almost completely to reverse this relationship in the last few years, because Berlin does not dare to imagine that conflicts can possibly be resolved by any means other than de-escalation.
Turkey could be leaned on a little more than is currently the case
Nobody should be under any illusion that the EU can save Turkey from itself. The people of Turkey alone get to determine the destiny of their country. But what it can do is to take advantage of the balance of power to make it clear that there are red lines not only in the Mediterranean, but wherever basic human rights are at stake. There is no reason not to talk about how incentives can be used to wring substantial domestic changes out of Turkey. As long as they do not threaten the President’s stranglehold on power, far more is possible, from the release of political prisoners to the non-redevelopment of Gezi Park, than Brussels currently seems to imagine. Otherwise, the EU’s “positive agenda” will continue to be a roadmap to nowhere.
This article was first published in German on Der Tagesspiegel.