Some members of the European Union have been mounting a steady effort to end Turkey’s membership bid with the 27-nation bloc for years without openly saying it, exploiting every opportunity to block the candidate country’s accession negotiations.
As Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan struggles to contain waves of protest that are on a roll, unabated for more than three weeks, the diplomatic tide is running sharply against him. What is at stake more than anything is he possibility of Turkey’s EU membership.
Western reaction to Erdoğan’s handling of the protests, which started as a modest environmental sit-in but morphed into a nationwide protest after police used unnecessary force to disperse them in Gezi Park near Istanbul’s famed Taksim Square, unsurprisingly has been one of deep unhappiness. A windfall from heaven, EU leaders quickly jumped to use it to halt Turkey’s EU membership talks.
Racing to criticize Erdogan
European politicians raced to issue harshly critical remarks against the response of Erdoğan in quelling the protests, which also involved violent groups and played into government’s narrative that the demonstrations are not all peaceful. A decision endorsed by the European Parliament earlier this month rebuking Ankara for its heavy-handed response to the demonstrations infuriated Erdoğan, who declared that Ankara doesn’t recognize the European body and the decision is null and void.
European politicians raced to issue harshly critical remarks against the response of Erdoğan in quelling the protestsMahir Zeynalov
The bloc continues to make statements that Ankara finds far too lopsided. Turkey claims that EU’s criticisms of the Turkish government stand in contrast to the relative silence of the bloc in several EU member states including Germany, Britain and Greece, whose governments cracked down hard on protesters. The official EU line - that its unwillingness to accept Turkey as a member state is not related to its Muslim identity - is scarcely taken at face value among Turkish public.
The tensions between Ankara and Brussels reached a climax after Germany blocked Turkey’s EU membership talks, almost effectively ending Ankara’s last hope to revive the long stalled negotiations. Willingness on both sides to open a new chapter during the Irish presidency, ending on July 1, had been a rare positive sign in a troubled relationship. The two sides were hoping to grope for ways to keep the dialogue alive when negotiations were to resume later this month.
Joining the club
The EU has started negotiations with Turkey on Oct. 3, 2005 and only one chapter, Science and Technology, was closed in eight years of accession talks. Candidate countries must close 35 negotiation chapters to become a member of the bloc. For nearly three years, Turkey has failed to open even a single chapter, much less close one, and blamed some EU member nations for having no apetite to discuss the membership with Ankara.
The case for becoming the EU member state got a major boost with the advent of reformist and pro-democracy government of Erdoğan in 2002. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) viewed Brussels as an effective leverage tool to get rid of undemocratic forces in Turkey, such as the strong military that often played into the politics of the country. Erdoğan’s government enjoyed high popularity in Turkey then but was constantly checked by undemocratic forces, including military establishment coupled with the unfavorable media and judiciary.
For several years, the government had endorsed sweeping reforms as part of its bid to become an EU member state, limiting the role of military in politics, bringing judiciary in line with EU standards and making significant democratic amendments to the Turkish law. Reviving a vibrant economy, undertaking a proactive foreign policy and rapidly democratizing the country imbued Turkey with a great deal of international importance and a leadership role in the region. Ankara’s economic and military throw-weight is growing and, along with it, its capability to draft its own rules of the game.
With crippled and ineffective opposition and unprofessional media, the Turkish government faces no substantial opposition to check its growing power today. In this respect, a collapse of membership talks would be a potential stinging blow to Turkey’s democratization efforts. Some EU members, particularly Germany, have yet to see that snubbing Turkey would not yield a significant return and will only be counterproductive.
It is now more than clear that the Turkish government will be reluctant to make serious efforts to join a club that it blames for orchestrating instability in its country.
The next question
“Where to go from here?” is the tougher question.
A decade ago, Ankara needed Brussels to curb the role of military and judiciary in politics and it was eager to join the club also to benefit from its lucrative economic zone. Despite unfinished business of democracy, Ankara no longer needs the EU - the only possible check on Ankara in the face of non-existent domestic opposition. Opposition to Erdoğan’s government has mostly occured through undemocratic channels in the past. By refreshing memories, Erdoğan was quick to point to a conspiracy aiming to oust the democratically elected government.
Under these circumstances, the EU needs to engage with Turkey more than ever or risk leaving Turkish society polarized and its democracy incomplete. The appropriate answer to the Turkish government’s handling of the protests is not the one of isolation but more dialogue.
Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov