16th Mar 2018


EU-Turkey relations after the coup

  • Democracy is eroding in Turkey (Photo: EUobserver)

The pro-democracy stance that contrasted the recent tentative coup in Turkey has dealt a significant blow to a long tradition of military tutelage and interventions in politics, and pushed away the danger of Turkey’s drifting along the pathway leading to a Syrian-style civil war, at least for now.

This show of national unity in defence of democracy is unprecedented in Turkey’s history and, if used well by all players, could still constitute a basis to overcome the polarisation and divisiveness which characterise both Turkish politics and society and to create a more inclusive democratic regime.

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However, the outcomes of the failed coup seem to be going into a different direction. There are at least three interconnected areas in which consequences could be felt in the short to medium term: the domestic scene, the EU-Turkey relationship and the broader geopolitical regional setting, of particular importance given the current situation in the Middle East.

Within hours of the attempt, an unprecedented purge was launched to rid the Turkish Armed Forces, the judiciary, the media and the educational establishment of alleged supporters of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic teacher who lives in the US and who is accused of having created a parallel state structure.

There are ongoing worrying reports of human rights violations, torture and ill-treatment of detained people, as well as of further restrictions of freedom of expression, press and other fundamental rights.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been seeking to consolidate his power by making Turkey a presidential republic, could use the popular support he gained from defeating the coup by calling a snap election in search of the majority he needs to change the constitution.

The swift pace of the government’s reaction and the large number of people affected by these measures feed the suspicion that the government is using the coup to eliminate its opponents, regardless of their actual involvement.

The post-coup course of action is confirming that the state of Turkish democracy is deteriorating, and drifting towards authoritarianism already denounced by the opposition and international observers from 2013 onwards.

The reintroduction of the death penalty by Erdogan would unequivocally signal that reforms are being rolled back and would put Turkey on a collision course with the EU, undermining its already shaky candidate status.

But the deterioration of EU-Turkey relations could have negative effects well beyond the accession process. Economic links, the response to the Islamic State threat and tackling migration and refugee flows from Syria are currently at the core of the relationship and indicate a high level of interdependence between the two sides.

The EU has turned to Turkey to try to stop the flow of migrants and the mostly Syrian refugees through the Balkans route, which has created major tensions between its EU states and posed an existential threat to the Schengen agreement.

The EU has been ready to go a long way to secure Turkey’s cooperation, as shown by the agreement of 18 March. The reality is that it would be difficult for the EU to manage the migrants and refugee crises – but also to effectively address current EU security concerns – without some form of Turkey’s cooperation, or worse, in an atmosphere of growing contrast.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that Turkey can live without the EU. In spite of the vagaries of its regional policy, Turkey undeniably needs the EU as an anchor to avoid being completely swallowed by the chaos of the surrounding region, which could threaten its national security and territorial integrity.

It also needs to avoid further tarnishing of strong economic ties, which would have dire impact on Turkey’s stagnating economy, already affected by the situation in the region and the deteriorating security in the country.

In this context, the situation created by the failed coup and its ramifications will certainly complicate the picture but common interests and strong interdependence will persist.

EU institutions and many of its member states have expressed concern at the current developments and invited the Turkish government to respect the rule of law.

The EU should continue to closely monitor the developments in Turkey, remind Turkey of its obligation to uphold democratic principles and strongly condemn any authoritarian drift.

But maximum effort should also be made to keep all channels of dialogue open so as to avoid feeding Turkey’s feeling of isolation, which has reappeared time and again in the country’s history and has often been the prelude of Turkish adventurism.

The final point of concern is geopolitics. Turkey continues to play an important role as a member of Nato.

However, with the collapse of the regional order after the Arab uprisings, policies and alliances by regional and global players have been changing at a fast speed to respond to real or perceived threats and opportunities as well as to geopolitical calculations. The proxy war in Syria is a good case in point.

Against this backdrop, the failed coup may become an additional factor of uncertainty.

Turkey’s suspicion that the US and other foreign countries might have been involved in the coup and the rapid support given to Erdogan by Russia and Iran in its immediate aftermath may open the way to possible shifts in Turkish foreign policy, starting from the Syrian theatre.

Continuous Western efforts will be needed to avoid dangerous drifts which might tilt the balance in this strategic region.

Luigi Narbone is director of the Middle East programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute

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