Following a failed military coup, Turkey is on its way to becoming a presidential dictatorship. Wasting little time, President Erdogan, with support from the government and a parliamentary majority, has placed constraints on the rule of law, pluralism and freedoms of expression. Tens of thousands of civil servants, education professionals and university employees have either been dismissed or suspended; thousands of judges, military officials, police officers and journalists have been arrested; and several intellectuals have been denied the right to travel outside the country. Instead of reaching out in a conciliatory tone and deepening democratic institutions, the government’s leadership has fostered divisions within Turkish society and pursued an cleansing of the country’s political institutions.
Understandably, emotions are running high in the West. How could a NATO member state and aspiring EU member so blatantly rebuke the community of values without suffering isolation or sanctions on the part of European governments? These questions beg clear answers. Yet there are reasons for the reserved reactions from Brussels, Berlin and other European capitals.
In the current global context, the West needs Turkey as a NATO partner. And it is committed to deepening its cooperation with the Turkish government. But why? First, the West needs Turkey for its military strategy against the Islamic State group: The 60-member global coalition to counter IS recently declared in Washington its plans to liberate the north Iraqi city of Mosul from jihidis in the coming months. Turkey is key to this offensive’s military operations, the anticipated intake of refugees and post-conflict reconstruction in the area. Second, Turkey plays an important role in bringing an end to the violent conflict in Syria and flow of refugees this conflict has created. Both Washington and Moscow, under the auspices of the United Nations, are seeking a new round of negotiations that will require Ankara’s cooperation. Third, Turkey is integral to resolving the current refugee crisis. Only a few months old, the EU-Turkey refugee deal has helped reduce the number of illegal border crossings into Europe from several thousand to only a few dozen per day. As long as European member states remain undecided on how to distribute refugees within the EU and how best to strengthen their external borders, they will depend on the Turkish government’s support.
While European politicians have threatened that a re-introduction of the death penalty in Turkey would signal the end of EU accession negotiations, this threat bears little weight as Turkish membership in the EU is rather improbable anyhow. Given the de facto realpolitik constraints, it’s high time that the EU acknowledge how little influence it has on Turkish domestic politics. The West should therefore pursue the more difficult diplomatic path of change through rapprochement. To be sure, EU accession negotiations remain an important tool and should not be readily abandoned. This would send the wrong signal to democratic and pro-Western forces within Turkey that Europe is leaving them in the lurch.
European governments have a weighty bargaining chip in their hands with the EU-Turkey Customs Union agreement. The planned TTIP free-trade agreement would mean that Turkey, as a non-participating third country, forfeit considerable economic gains, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung calculations. In addition, Ankara is dependent on Western financial support as the country grapples with the expense of managing the inflow of refugees and handling conflicts in Kurdish regions at a time when most tourists have chosen other destinations and, as a result of the attempted coup, stock markets have been rattled and foreign investment is falling.
Outside of Turkey, the failed coup and its incipient political purges have divided and radicalized Turkish and Kurdish communities across Europe. Freedoms of expression and the right to demonstrate have been exploited for the purpose of propagating hate speech and insults. Turks and Kurds critical of President Erdogan as well as Europeans of Turkish descent have received nasty emails and even death threats. Members of the German Bundestag with Turkish and Kurdish ethnic backgrounds have been denounced and threatened – with Ankara’s official backing. German authorities, politicians and civil society alike must act resolutely on two levels in this regard: On the one hand, they must render tangible the importance of an operable rule of law and constitution. On the other, they must cultivate dialogue between Turkish and Kurdish groups, openly address the potential for conflict and build bridges between opposing sides. In so doing, they send an important message to the Turkish government – that the rule of law, liberty, reconciliation and dialogue can bear potent fruits.
Even if Europe’s relations with Turkey are dictated by realpolitik, this relationship is sure to face further conflicts. For one, EU member states must be prepared to provide clear asylum prospects to Turkish intellectuals seeking refuge. For another, Ankara will likely insist on visa-free movement for Turkish citizens within the EU and, should implementation fail, threaten to revoke the refugee agreement. In addition, several European NGOs, including German foundations, projects and offices located in Turkey, have begun discussing a failsafe plan should their operations be further constrained or even prohibited. Still further, European governments and the Turkish government’s views on democracy, freedom of expression, the nation-state, Islam and the fight against terrorism are drifting ever further apart. Finally, nobody can anticipate which direction the country will take should, in addition to martial law, the country face further terrorist attacks and an intensified conflict in Kurdish regions.
Europe and Germany are near powerless in the face of developments in Turkey. There are simply no simple answers. Despite the limits, Europe can send strong signals and take a clear stance. But Europe must respond quickly with resolve -- and with one voice.
Commentary by Christian Hanelt