Three weeks of unrest in Turkey have left five people dead, injured many others, and forced thousands more to seek treatment for tear gas inhalation. Now an international crisis over the still simmering protests could do critical damage to the great drivers of Turkey’s success story over the past fifteen years, namely the reforms required as part of the country’s European Union accession process.
The public dimension of the new spat is dramatic, including Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying he “does not recognize the European Parliament” and one of the Parliament’s most pro-Turkey voices, Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group, replying that this “can only mean he does not want Turkey to become a member.” In developments reminiscent of the bad old 1990s, EU–Turkey inter-parliamentary meetings are being cancelled, Europeans decry excessive Turkish use of force and Turkish leaders are pointing fingers at “international conspiracies” and “interest-rate lobbies.” Privately, too, European diplomats are airing a damaging idea: should the EU-27 punish Erdoğan’s strongarm tactics by not opening a new EU negotiating chapter for Turkey as expected later this month?
This is a simplistic idea that should be stopped in its tracks. A smarter approach would be for the EU to push on with the opening of the chapter on regional policy as planned. Turkey has only opened thirteen of thirty-five negotiating chapters since full membership negotiations began in 2005, and has not managed to open any in the past three years. With feelings running so high on both sides, freezing all movement now will deepen an unscripted, long-term estrangement in which both sides are losing.
Rather than pushing Turkey further away, there are many reasons for the EU to choose more active engagement. A first point is purely practical. External actors have little chance of having any short-term influence over Turkish events at this point, particularly if they decide to threaten punitive action. The unrest roiling many Turkish cities is an intensely domestic, local standoff. If Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continue to blame their problem on foreign media and international conspiracies, they will partake in a ritual common to past Turkish leaderships in denial about realities on the ground. Turkish leaders would be well advised to curb some of the more insulting language toward the EU and its officials, but the EU can only lose by following them into this downward spiral.
AKP frictions with the EU have grown since 2009. But European governments should not make a move that would effectively punish the majority of protestors, who are drawn from Turkey’s modern, secular, Western-oriented middle classes, a largely pro-EU constituency. Already, their creative and humorous approach during the mostly peaceful demonstrations has cast aside many taboos and historical burdens that too often weigh down Turkey’s political life and hold back its reforms. Protestors’ demands boil down to a wish for improved transparency, environmental standards, inclusive planning and responsible government. This is the kind of Turkey that Europe says it wants, and progress on these fronts has been best achieved in Turkey in the years up to 2010, particularly 1999–2005, when it was actively adopting the EU body of law, the acquis.
If EU governments wish to show a moral stand against the violence and tear gas that Erdoğan ordered the police to use—and the insidious campaign of detentions of lawyers who dared defend the protestors, harassment of doctors who treated the victims, and beatings of Turkish journalists covering events—the right approach is more EU engagement, not estrangement. As things stand, it is inexplicable why the EU is not opening chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security) of the negotiations, as Turkey is requesting. Holding back these chapters is also out of step with the EU’s new negotiating approach, which prioritizes these particular areas and foresees that they should be tackled early in the accession process. Certainly, Turkey should be held to its international commitments, like judgments of the European Court of Human Rights about excessive use of force and limiting the use of tear gas in closed spaces. But any political punishment is surely for the Turkish people to decide in local and presidential elections that Turkey will be holding next year.
The picture is confused by misrepresentation on both the Turkish and European sides. Sometimes it seems there is an unholy alliance between AKP leaders and Turkey-skeptic Europeans, both of whom claim that Turkey is somehow on the cusp of EU membership. The AKP does this in order to claim to their domestic constituency that all is going amazingly well, while Europeans do it to show their constituency that they are standing tall against Muslims perceived to be poised to rush over Europe’s doorstep. In fact, since Turkey’s population still only earns half the average income of EU states, and the country has a poor record in many indices of human development, Turkey is actually a decade away from any realistic chance of joining.
It may be that an alternative framework for the EU–Turkey relationship is the answer, but this is only beginning to be discussed and means Turkey would have to abandon its national goal, held for the past twenty-five years, of full EU membership. Everyone knows that neither Turkey nor Europe would be likely to accept Turkey as a member of today’s EU. Everyone also knows this is irrelevant, since the decision on Turkish membership will be taken by another generation of politicians. In the meantime, thoughtful leaders on both sides want a healthy EU–Turkey process as a simple end in itself. Whichever way Turkey and Europe choose to fit together, it can only be found by maintaining open channels of communication. This would be the best path to the advantages of a healthy relationship: European companies secure in Turkey’s fast-growing market and Turkish companies secure in access to the rich EU one; the synergies of EU–Turkey collaboration rather than rivalry in the Balkans; for Europe, the advantages of a Muslim friend at its side in dealing with a shared Middle Eastern backyard, and for Turkey, a European anchor against the real dangers of the growing instability on its Middle Eastern borders.