Internal stresses, operable in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 15 July 2016, combined with the international environment led Ankara to one of the most dramatic moments of its contemporary history. The Turkish government, after the attempted coup, was characterized not only for extensive purges of its opponents but also for an activism internationally focused in the newly woven good relations with other regional and global powers, with which the relations had previously deteriorated or broken.

Clear evidence of this new era was the reopening of a special channel with Russia, its mainstream competitor in the Black Sea, which compensates for the tension with the United States and the West in general. In fact, the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey last December served to underline a promising alliance that could have the effect of weakening the U.S influence across the Middle East.  This was recently demonstrated by the visit of Putin to Turkey last October. Although the Syrian conflict sees Moscow and Ankara on opposite sides, the ambiguity that, according to Ankara the Western governments have shown during the mid-July attempted coup in favour of alternatives to Erdoğan, are a great excuse to re-open a special channel with Moscow[1].

The European Union’s reactions to the failed military coup in Turkey were in fact ambivalent.

On one hand, the defeat of the coup leaders, who wanted to alter by force the order and democratic institutions was welcomed; on the other hand, however, overriding fears of the harshness of response that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, already very prone to authoritarianism, could be tempted to give with a further crackdown on rights and civil liberties in the country couldn’t be underestimated.

In a joint statement of the 16th July[2], High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn said they were “concerned” by Turkey’s decision to declare a state of emergency. The move gave Turkey’s leaders “far-reaching powers to govern by decree”. Following this decision, thousands of people were sacked or arrested. Both senior EU officials urged President Erdoğan to respect the rule of law, rights and freedoms. In addition, they warned Turkey over its decision to suspend the European Convention on Human Rights, saying it must stick to the conditions by which a suspension is permitted[3]. In the immediate aftermath of the failed coup, thousands of soldiers – including high-ranking generals – were arrested, along with members of the judiciary. Since then, more than 50,000 state employees have also been rounded up, sacked or suspended and 600 schools were closed. Academics have been banned from foreign travel and university heads have been forced to resign. The European Commission has expressed “concern about the proportionality[4]” of measures taken in Turkey after the attempted coup, in particular the “wave of arrests”, and wondered whether these measures were compatible with what was occurring. The European Commission’s latest annual report on Turkey’s progress in meeting the conditions to become a full EU member clearly shows that the rule of law, media freedom and human rights have deteriorated to such an extent since last July that it would be appropriate to wonder whether the two sides should consider abandoning the accession process[5].

2016 was definitely a turbulent year for the country, given the subsequent terrorist attacks, the assassination of the Russian ambassador and the crackdown on the opposition.

Turkey, as a NATO member and aspirant EU member, was once seen as a stable democracy. Despite starting membership talks in 2005, EU leaders have never officially tackled the issue of fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey. Internal tensions, combined with the international environment, led Ankara to one of the most dramatic moments of its modern history: it opened a new phase in the complex context of the near and Middle East. The ongoing authoritarian consolidation in Turkey has significantly decreased the leverage of the EU’s willingness to engage with Turkey. Yet, the EU’s reaction to the authoritarian turn has been so far limited. The EU has been divided in the past few years to come up with a joint response to evident democratic reversal in the largest candidate country. The failed coup served as an opportunity to this effect. Commission President Juncker promptly declared that Turkey’s membership remained an unrealistic objective in the foreseeable future[6]. Nevertheless, to date, the EU remains highly divided over its approach. On one hand, the European Parliament is openly critical of the deteriorating democratic credentials under the AKP rule, arguing future relations shouldn’t be linked to the refugee deal[7]. On the other, the EU Commission and several member states highlight the importance of keeping cooperation channels open. The EU will probably try to avoid expelling Turkey from the list of candidate countries, as the predominant view is that such a radical move would sever the cooperation on migration and end whatever leverage the EU has over Turkey. In fact, Erdoğan seems to believe the refugee deal could be used as a threat. After the vote in the European Parliament last November, which urged governments to freeze EU accession talks with Ankara, Erdoğan warned that Turkey could abandon the agreement.  The agreement is important for the West, as it halts the influx of refugees, particularly from Syria, into Europe in exchange for economic aid and a promise to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens within the Schengen zone. With around 2.5 million refugees situated within the Turkish border[8], a release into Europe of any significant number of them would renew the intense strain on European resources to cope with the movement of refugees. Hence, the EU Commission’s insistence in maintaining the engagement with Turkey should be no surprise.


europe april 16
“Men selling the national flags of Turkey at Eminönü meydan during after coup demonstartions of president Erdogan supporters. Istanbul, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Western Asia. 22 July,2016”. Photo: (CC BY-SA 4.0) by Mstyslav Chernov.

Domestic political requirements will likely impose new strategic choices to push the country toward a social setup that is hardly compatible with the EU and Western standards. The Turkish government’s assault on the infrastructure of democratic political life poses the sharpest challenge to the notion that the country can remain a democracy. In particular, its failure to uphold press freedom and the scale of purges of the opposition and independent civil society suggests an intention to pursue domination[9]. The state of press freedom and Internet freedom has suffered the most, ultimately bringing Turkey into the league of most repressive regimes around the world.

The relationship is fraught with mutual suspicion. The EU has condemned Erdoğan’s crackdown while at the same time many Turks blame the EU for the collapse of the accession process. Even those who do not support Erdoğan were furious about how long western leaders took to visit Ankara and declare solidarity after last summer’s attempt to topple the elected government[10].

Both sides seem locked in an awkward embrace.

Ankara cannot afford to alienate the EU, which is by far its largest trading partner; while the EU needs Erdoğan to keep his side of the deal on Syrian refugees, under which Turkey stops refugees from crossing over its side of the Aegean. If the country ends up in the abyss of disorder and absolute insecurity pulling even behind Europe, for which is the gateway to and from the Middle East. It stands to reason that the framework for the future does not appear encouraging. The difficulties are many.

Now, what worries the West even more is the introduction of the presidential system that was approved by Erdoğan on 10 February[11]. The referendum is going to be held on April 16th. This reform may legitimize a concentration of power that, in fact, is already under way. The direct election of the president, his ability to depose the Prime Minister according to his will and hold strong on the party. Erdoğan rests on the legitimacy of the vote to get to a semi-presidential evolution, not without recalling the French and even the American models. Nevertheless, there are important differences: no federalism, and especially the absence of countervailing powers, which balance the executive. The judicial system was reformed in 2010. Its independence is limited. Now it is up to the Turkish people and the public opinion to choose.

Cover Photograph: (CC BY-SA 2.0) by mtarlock

References

Bilge Yabanci and Kerem Oktem,  November 2016, What could and should the EU do with Tukey?, https://www.opendemocracy.net/bilge-yabanci-kerem-oktem/what-could-and-should-eu-do-with-turkey-s-authoritarian-consolidation

FadiHakura, August 2016, Why Turkey’s disapproval of the West’s response to the coup has limited merit,https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/why-turkey-s-disapproval-west-s-response-coup-has-limited-merit

Kareem Shaheen, January 2017, Turkey’s parliament set to approve sweeping new powers for president, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/19/turkeys-constitutional-reforms-set-for-approval-in-parliament

TancrèdeFulconis and Aaron Stein, December 20016, The future of EU-Turkey relations, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-future-of-eu-turkey-relations

Vince Chadwick, Jean-Claude Juncker: Turkey’sNot Ready for EU Membership, March 2016, http://www.politico.eu/article/jean-claude-juncker-turkeys-not-ready-for-eu-membership/

July 2016, Turkey attempted coup: EU says measures “unacceptable”, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36861154

November 2016, Freeze EU accession talks with Turkey until it halts repression, urge MEPs, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20161117IPR51549/freeze-eu-accession-talks-with-turkey-until-it-halts-repression-urge-meps

December 20, 2016, After an assassination, Turkey and Russia are only getting closer, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/after-an-assassination-turkey-and-russia-are-only-getting-closer/2016/12/20/eb5f5c36-c6dc-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html?utm_term=.a596539fdf83

[1]December 20, 2016, After an assassination, Turkey and Russia are only getting closer, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/after-an-assassination-turkey-and-russia-are-only-getting-closer/2016/12/20/eb5f5c36-c6dc-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html?utm_term=.a596539fdf83

[2]July 2016, European Commission statement, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-16-2555_en.htm

[3] As laid out in Article 15 of the Convention, Derogation in time of emergency

[4]July 2016, Turkey attempted coup: EU says measures “unacceptable”, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36861154

[5]November 2016, Freeze EU accession talks with Turkey until it halts repression, urge MEPs, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20161117IPR51549/freeze-eu-accession-talks-with-turkey-until-it-halts-repression-urge-meps.

[6]March 2016, Vince Chadwick, Jean-Claude Juncker: Turkey’s Not Ready for EU Membership, http://www.politico.eu/article/jean-claude-juncker-turkeys-not-ready-for-eu-membership/.

[7] November 2016, Bilge Yabanci and Kerem Oktem, What could and should the EU do with Tukey?, https://www.opendemocracy.net/bilge-yabanci-kerem-oktem/what-could-and-should-eu-do-with-turkey-s-authoritarian-consolidation.

[8] Broomfield M. (2016) Pictures of life for Turkey’s 2.5 million Syrian refugees,  The Independent.

[9]TancrèdeFulconis and Aaron Stein, December 20016, The future of EU-Turkey relations, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-future-of-eu-turkey-relations

[10]FadiHakura, August 2016, Why Turkey’s disapproval of the West’s response to the coup has limited merit,https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/why-turkey-s-disapproval-west-s-response-coup-has-limited-merit.

[11]Mediterranean Affairs, Weekly News 6th – 10th February, 2017.