The European Union is taking a cynical approach to its relationship with Turkey and, in the process, undercutting the liberal values that underpin it. Although this may give some short-term benefit to leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who is facing domestic pressure as a result of mishandling the refugee crisis, it could store up trouble for the future.
At a summit on November 29, the EU and Turkey cut a two-part deal. The first involved promising Ankara cash and visa-free travel for its citizens in return for stemming the flow of migrants from Turkey into the EU. The second involved re-energizing talks for Turkey to join the club.
In the past, EU “accession” talks have been a tool for countries with illiberal backgrounds to make a transition to democracy, rule of law and human rights. The EU sets a series of conditions countries need to meet in order to join the club and their leaders then beaver away for years to satisfy them.
The process worked pretty well for Greece, Spain and Portugal after their right-wing authoritarian governments fell in the 1970s. It also helped most Eastern European countries escape their Communist heritage following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
With Turkey, though, the process isn’t working. At the same time that the EU is promising to re-energize accession talks, Turkey is becoming more illiberal and authoritarian under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The reason is that the EU isn’t sincere about wanting Turkey in the club, while Erdoğan has no intention of making the reforms needed to join.
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What we are witnessing is hypocrisy on multiple levels. The EU pretends to want Turkey as a member but many of its citizens would be horrified at the prospect of a country of 78 million people, most of them Muslims, having free movement throughout the Union. Liberal values, of course, include non-discrimination on the basis of religion, but the EU may lack the courage of its convictions when it comes to Islam.
The EU also pretends to care about democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But it barely mentions these, fearing that doing so would infuriate Sultan Erdoğan and make him less amenable to slowing the flow of refugees.
Turkey is becoming more illiberal and authoritarian under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The reason is that the EU isn’t sincere about wanting the country in the club.
Each year the European Commission writes a report on Turkey’s progress vis-à-vis yardsticks relevant to its ultimate membership to the bloc. This year, the report was expected to be published in October. Instead, it was delayed until November, nine days after a general election which Erdoğan had called in order to re-establish his party’s overall majority in Parliament.
When the Commission’s report did come out, it was suitably critical. It said freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary had been curtailed, while corruption and discrimination against women, gays and other groups were widespread. But because of its timing, the report didn’t get much attention. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Commission delayed the release to avoid offending Erdoğan by upsetting his election plans.
Meanwhile, Merkel went to see Erdoğan in Istanbul less than two weeks before the election to talk about the deal that was ultimately agreed at last month’s summit. Foreign leaders don’t normally visit countries in the throes of election campaigns on the grounds that it could be seen as interfering in the democratic process. The photos of the Queen of Europe paying homage to the new Sultan were useful propaganda for the Turkish president.
The EU has also bitten its tongue as Erdoğan’s media crackdown has intensified. Three days before the summit, the editor of Cumhuriyet, one of the country’s leading newspapers, was arrested on charges of assisting terrorists after he published footage purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence service helping send weapons to Syria. A similar report previously appeared on Reuters.
The editor and a colleague, also in jail, sent an open letter to EU leaders, saying they hoped their desire to end the refugee crisis would “not stand in the way of your sensitivity towards human rights, freedom of press and expression as fundamental values of the Western world.” The communiqué at the end of the summit didn’t mention these issues, although they got a minor walk-on part in the press comments by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.
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Instead of hypocrisy, Europe’s leaders should engage in straight talk about Turkey. They should offer Erdoğan a choice. Either he can have a purely transactional relationship, in which they give Ankara money and other goodies in exchange for stemming the flood of refugees. European leaders would be muted in their criticism of authoritarianism, in the same way it treats Russia, China or Saudi Arabia. Or they can genuinely work on Turkey joining the EU but, in that case, they will call him out whenever he fails to meet the required standards.
What they shouldn’t do is continue with the current course that involves a transactional relationship dressed up as part of an accession process that nobody really believes in.
It is almost inconceivable that Erdoğan will choose the second option. But, if he did, the EU’s leaders would have another tough job, persuading their own citizens that Turkey should be admitted to the club, provided it makes the necessary reforms. Indeed, given the rising tide of right-wing populism, that might seem an impossible mission.
But if that’s what the EU thinks, it shouldn’t even pretend to dangle the carrot of membership.
Hugo Dixon, a columnist and entrepreneur, is the author of “The In/Out Question: Why Britain Should Stay in the EU and Fight to Make it Better”(CreateSpace, 2014).
Related stories on these topics:
The EU’s hypocrisy on Turkey
A transactional relationship dressed up as an accession nobody believes in.
By Hugo Dixon
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