COMMENT: Europe’s Turkey conundrum

COMMENT: Europe’s Turkey conundrum
By Ben Aris January 19, 2016

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was welcomed in Britain on January 19 with gushing words of friendship by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, but beneath the bonhomie European leaders are tearing their hair out. The EU is caught in a bind between trying to press European values on a reluctant Turkey, and its need to get Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on board to steam the flood of refugees from the Middle Eastern conflicts.

"We face these challenges together with you, the fight against terrorism, against Daesh (IS), and also the need to bring about change in Syria,” Cameron said in televised remarks ahead of the two leaders' private tête-à-tête. "We’re going to work very closely together on that, as on many other things, as Nato partners and allies with a very strong economic relationship and a very strong political relationship that we’ve built up over the last few years." 

Davutoglu, who said British-Turkish ties are "excellent", thanked Cameron for his support in Turkey’s EU bid and looked forward to expanding trade relations, the volume of which was worth $15bn in 2015.

Behind the scenes the conversation must have been very different. Turkey has been trying to join the EU for well over a decade and has had to stand at the door and watch a slew of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) states quickly ushered in ahead of it. Brussels has used EU membership as a carrot to get what it wants from Ankara, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said explicitly at the end of last year that Turkey will never join on her watch. "I have always been against EU membership, President (Tayyip) Erdogan knows this, and I still am," Merkel told a talk show on German public broadcaster ARD in October.

But in a sign of just how conflicted Brussels has become, less than two weeks after the “never” comments Merkel said she would support accelerated EU membership in return for “cooperation in stemming the flow of migrants and taking back those rejected by Europe".

Merkel, like many European leaders, is facing a revolt in her own ranks in the face of a tide of refugees flooding into the country, which may even cost her the chancellor’s job at the upcoming general election.

For its part Turkey has been cynically milking Europe’s discomfort to win concessions. While there is still no real prospect of Turkey being allowed into the EU any time soon, the pot on the table is visa-free travel and cold hard cash. On November 29 the EU reactivated the visa action plan road map, which was officially launched on December 16 2013, and offered a bribe of €3bn if Ankara stops more refugees transiting Turkey and takes back those sitting in European interment camps now.

Turkey sliding backwards

But all this talk is mere platitudes. Turkey has undone most of the progress towards EU membership it had made both before and after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power. The EU has been ignoring a raft of ills and is increasingly burying its head in the sand as most of Turkey’s problems have got worst.

Erdogan doesn't seem to care as he barrels single-mindedly towards his overreaching goal: crushing his political opposition, one of whose leaders called him   a “tinpot dictator” last week.

Turkey is one of the world's top jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Project Journalists, and is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Freedom Index, down from its 98th place (out of 161 countries) in 2006.

Erdogan has also been accused of fixing the elections in November last year by adding some 10% to his vote in order that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could take a simple majority.

And things have got a lot worse recently. Erdogan is now fighting a de facto civil war in the southeast of the country against the Kurdish population. The army is shelling cities after running street battles with members of the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) escalate. According to eye witnesses bne IntelliNews has interviewed, fighters are increasingly drawn from the disaffected young population of these cities, who have  lost relatives in the mounting death toll and have become radicalised.

The war on the Kurds is tearing society apart. Last week more than 1,000 leading academics signed a petition calling for an end to the war, saying they would “not be part of this crime.” The response was immediate and harsh, with dozens of the protestors being arrested on “insulting Turkishness” charges. Sedat Peker, a notorious convicted criminal and associate of Erdogan, promised the academics that he would “shower in your blood”.

EU accession off track

Despite all this, the EU is blindly following short-term geopolitical goals, which currently boil down to stemming the flow of refugees.

There are 72 points on the November 2015 visa roadmap, out of which only 13 have been fully met, according to Turkey's Ministry for European Union Affairs. Another 10 have not been met at all and the remaining 49 have been “partially met” or “almost fulfilled". Independent observers says that in assessing just how much is “partially”, a better description would be “far from satisfying” the criteria.

Indeed, on many of the criteria Turkey is actually going backwards, such as the need to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights,  the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, and the EU acquis communitaire with regard to “organised crime and terrorism.”

Erdogan has made liberal use of anti-terrorism laws to cudgel his political opposition. In his most recent abuse of power, Erdogan threatened to remove the parliamentary immunity of the leftwing and largely Kurdish HDP, which entered parliament for the first time last summer, in order to press terrorism charges against them.

In general, the institutions of the police, security forces and judiciary have been undermined after Erdogan stuffed them with loyal supporters and turned them into a political weapon. What is really worrying is that similar reshuffles are going on in the army, where the second and third tiers of the army are quietly being reshuffled to stuff them with Erdogan supporters, according to unconfirmed reports from bne IntelliNews sources in Turkey. The army has long been the guarantor of the democratic and secular legacy of Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey.

But neither the EU nor the Turkish government will find it easy to keep shutting their eyes to the new Turkish reality. Because of protests on Monday by pro-Kurdish protesters gathered outside Downing Street to condemn the Turkish government’s military operations,  Davutoglu had to leave Downing Street through the backdoor.