24th Oct 2016

Turkey and the EU one month after the coup

  • Almost 300 Turks lost their lives in fighting with coup plotters on 15 July. (Photo: Reuters)

A month after the failed coup in Turkey, life in Istanbul is somewhere between back to normal and things will never be the same again.

Hanging down from buildings, fluttering through rolled-down car windows, wrapped around people, Turkish flags paint the town red. The Bosphorus bridge connecting Asia and Europe has been renamed 15 July Martyrs in honour of those who died in fighting linked with last month's attempted coup.

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Even the air is different - massive loudspeakers fill it with music that could be heard kilometres away. The playlist was only two songs long, switching between Turkiyem, a 1970s Turk pop tune, and Dombra, a tribute to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

State-run news outlet Anadolu Agency estimated that 25 million people attended pro-democracy rallies that only ended three weeks after the coup.

But while those joining the rallies were claiming to have saved democracy, EU leaders were lamenting an authoritarian crackdown.

While many Turks rejoiced at the rooting out of supposed infiltrators, the West lamented the purge of judges, journalists and teachers.

More than 23,000 people have been detained or arrested and 82,000 dismissed or suspended, accused of conspiring with an elderly cleric - Fethullah Gulen - who allegedly pulled the strings from his exile in the US.

”It does sound like a bad novel,” Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, told EUobserver in Brussels.

"But the lists were there," he added. "We have been cleaning the state of Gulen-linked officials since 2013. But we never expected anything this vicious."

Gulen has condemned the coup and protests his innocence. Last week, he requested an international investigation to clear him from the accusations.

United against Gulen

But after a month of arrests and confessions, the lion’s share of Turks appear to hold him accountable. Erdogan’s approval ratings have soared by more than 20 points to almost 70 percent. The four parliamentary parties, including Erdogan’s arch-rivals CHP and HDP, also think Gulen pulled the strings of the botched putsch.

Three parties - Erdogan’s conservative AKP, social democratic CHP, and nationalist MHP (but not leftist HDP) - made history on Sunday (7 August) when they appeared side by side at a “democracy and martyrs” demonstration.

”It was the first time in our history that everyone stood together,” said Selim Yenel. “Everything changed with the coup. It’s a new Turkey.”

But this new Turkey, however, has strained relations with the EU, with the Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu saying that the EU "failed the test" after the coup and accused the bloc of falling for anti-Turkey and anti-Erdogan sentiments.

A war of words has played out in the media over Turkey's post-coup purge, which includes a threat to reintroduce the death penalty.

Another source of tension is a visa liberalisation plan that would grant Turkish citizens short-term travel freedoms to the EU. With Turkey having so far failed to meet the agreed conditions, including overhauling its anti-terrorism legislation, the visa move may not happen. As a result, the migration deal concluded in March now hangs by a thread.

Most recently, Turkey was also caught up in a diplomatic row with Austria and Sweden that accused the country of wanting to allow sex with children.

Turkey's constitutional court last month scrapped an article in the penal code that defined all sexual acts against children as abuse. Rather, it said, cases should be reviewed individually so as to better balance crime and sanctions.

Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday (15 August) that the Austrian and Swedish criticisms were a reflection of the "racism, anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish [trend] in Europe."

Austria, currently Turkey's fiercest critic in the EU, has also said that Turkey's accession talks should be brought to a halt. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said he would use his seat in the foreign ministers council to veto the opening of new negotiation chapters with Turkey.

In response, Cavusoglu called Austria the "capital of radical racism". European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also rebuked Kurz, saying the will of the member states was to go on with the talks.

Turkish politicians, meanwhile, have traded barbs with the EU over its commitment to a visa liberalisation plan, which was due to enter into force in June but was postponed until October.

The commission seems split on the matter. EU commissioner for digital economy Guenther Oettinger had said the possibility of giving Turks visa-free travel this year had fallen after the post-coup crackdown. But EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters a few days later the intention was to push on with the plan after summer recess.

Selim Yenel, the Turkish ambassador, said it was unfortunate that EU-Turkish relations had suffered, but said they could be saved.

”We understand that holidays are sacred,” said the ambassador, ”but we hope that EU leaders will come and visit Turkey in September, and see the situation first-hand”.

The failure of senior EU officials to do so - while sending out critical noises - has drawn the ire of Turkish counterparts.

A group of Turkish MPs even visited Brussels by ways of establishing contact, but found the EU capital deserted.

Yenel was positive that understanding would grow once ministers and commissioners met.

Turkey was ready to modify its anti-terror law, as the EU requested, if that didn’t hurt the fight against terrorism and if Turkish citizens were guaranteed visa-free travel in Europe, he said.

And he added that threats of re-introducing the death penalty were only politicians scoring points.

”It would never pass through parliament,” he insisted. ”That would mean we had broken our commitment to Europe.”

Mending relations

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), painted a less rosy picture of the future but agreed the country had been thrust into a watershed moment by the coup attempt.

”The Gulenists occupied the core of the state. We need to start from scratch rebuilding our institutions,” she said.

She agreed there was a risk that innocent people would be caught in the net cast after Gulen loyalists.

”People are rightly concerned that the crackdown is too vast. Many mistakes are taking place,” she said.

”But I also think they don’t have any other option that to carry on with the investigation. The size of the threat is also real.”

The EU could - in theory - nudge Turkey in a democratic direction.

”But the EU has in the past been very supportive of Gulenists. Everyone knows this in Turkey, and that taints public support for the EU,” she said.

And the bloc’s understanding of the situation in Turkey was clouded by anti-Erdogan feeling.

“Let’s be honest, Erdogan had a terrible reputation in the West already before the coup,” Aydintasbas said. ”And this hasn’t helped.”

Bahadir Kaleagasi, the EU representative Turkey's leading business organisation Tusiad, agreed that EU wariness might be influenced by anti-Erdogan feelings.

”But that’s the opposite of the European spirit, to Jean Monnet’s union of nations,” Kaleagasi argued.

“If the EU really wants to act for the sake of democracy, the best thing it can do is to engage itself - rather than to send criticism from abroad.”

He said between 1995 and 2005, the possibility of EU membership talks had helped Turkey to evolve towards democracy.

“Turkey is the most important external relations success in EU history,” he said.

But the process came to a halt shortly after EU membership negotiations formally opened in 2005. Just one of 35 chapters has so far been concluded.

The EU left Turkey out in the cold for years - until the bloc decided to rely on Turkey to stem the arrival of refugees to the EU, he said.

“EU membership drove Turkey towards a democracy. Not seeing that perspective confirmed by the EU made the country lose its compass,” Kaleagasi said.

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