20th Mar 2018


How the EU helped erode Turkish democracy

  • Merkel blocked EU-Turkey talks on human rights, gave Erdogan the upper hand (Photo: Turkish presidency)

Turkey is strong, Europe is weak.

That is the image promoted by the Turkish government at a time when the EU has little leverage on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan due to the refugee crisis.

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  • Erdogan snatched opposition daily, Zaman, on eve of EU summit (Photo: Reuters)

Europe is partly responsible for getting itself into the situation.

By neglecting the accession process for decades, the EU has contributed to strengthening Erdogan’s authoritarian grip on power. It now finds itself sidelining its own values in return for Ankara’s help on migration, Turkish liberals and analysts say.

“There is lot of disappointment, from certain parts of Turkish society, that the EU is ready to turn a blind eye on the human rights violations, the fighting in the Kurdish areas, the government rolling back on fundamental rights,” Amanda Paul, a Turkey expert at the European Policy Center (EPC), a think tank in Brussels, told EUobserver.

“All this has bolstered president Erdogan, who uses it to shore up support for his constitutional reform to cement his grip on power,” she said.

Erdogan’s stated aim is to alter the Turkish charter to centralise power in his presidential palace.

The EU has struggled to come up with its own solution on how to handle the tens of thousands of asylum seekers coming each month via Turkey and Greece to the core of Europe.

Most of the people are fleeing war in Iraq and Syria. Turkey itself is home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

The situation led to a hasty EU-Turkey deal in which EU leaders promised €6 billion, visa-free travel, and faster accession talks in return for Turkey’s help.

With Erdogan guilty of increasing disdain for human rights, that promise puts the EU in an awkward position.

Turkish analysts said that Erdogan is using the EU accord to legitimise his internal crackdown. He seized a top opposition daily on the eve of one recent EU summit. His military attacks on Kurdish militants in south-east Turkey have displaced 150,000 people.

Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science in Istanbul, told EUobserver that Turkey is becoming increasingly undemocratic.

"The legislation that is produced by the [Ankara] parliament is 180 degrees opposite to the acquis communautaire,” he said, referring to the corpus of EU law.

Yavuz Baydar, a liberal Turkish journalist and a co-founder of P24, the Platform for Independent Media, said Turkey had all the power because it could break off the migrant deal at any moment.

He said EU leaders let the Turkish government “play them like a yoyo”.

He cited the example of German comedian Jan Boehmermann, who faces prosecution in Germany for a satirical poem on Erdogan, after Turkey put pressure on Berlin to let the case go ahead.

“There is an intrusion of authoritarian mentality represented by the ruling AKP party into Germany,” Baydar said.

“Erdogan wants to copy-paste what [Russian president Vladimir] Putin has done with western Europe - to depict himself as a powerful leader, the father of the nation, who is standing up to Europe,” he said.

Strategic thinking

It didn’t have to be that way, the experts noted.

Turkey has been an EU accession candidate since 1999 and negotiations started in 2005. But out of the 35 chapters in taks on the EU rulebook, just one has been concluded.

“If the EU had kept the dialogue open over the past decades, if accession chapters had been opened, Turkey’s democracy may not be in such a bad state,” the EPC’s Amanda Paul said.

“They [EU] are reaping what they sowed,” she said.

Kati Piri, a Dutch centre-left MEP who is the European Parliament rapporteur for Turkey, said Turkish authorities are first and foremost to blame for the erosion of democratic norms.

She added, however: “Our non-engagement has not helped the situation.”

EU commission deputy head Frans Timmermans has also said that non-engagement made matters worse.

“All those years that we sort of felt comfortable by ignoring them [Turks], but not engaging with them have done nothing to improve the situation in Turkey, on the contrary,” he said in a speech at the EU parliament last week.

He said the EU should open two sensitive chapters, on fundamental rights and justice.

“The EU’s policy has not been helpful to reform-oriented forces in Turkey, NGOs, civil society,” the EPC’s Paul told EUobserver.

She said Germany had blocked many of the chapters, but German leader Angela Merkel is now at the forefront of EU efforts to keep the Turkey migrant deal alive.

“Lack of strategic thinking has led us here,” Paul said.

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