George Dyson

Can Turkey-EU relations be normal again?

Flickr/Travel Aficionado/CC BY-NC 2.0
Buses with election advertisements by the AK Parti, 2017.

In the last year, Turkey-EU relations took a spectacular nose dive, following several years of gradual decline. After a year of such acrimony, can relations go back to the way they were before?

The first months of 2017 saw Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan use the term ‘Nazi’ to describe the actions of the government of Germany (and the Netherlands as well), provoking outrage. This marked the beginning of a long, bitter summer of tit for tat disputes between Turkey and the EU’s largest member. Relations eventually stabilised in October, following Germany’s September federal elections, into a new frosty normal.

This stabilisation came about for a number of reasons. Germany took or threatened to take a number of punitive measures against Turkey, including raising its travel warning for Turkey; the end of electoral campaigning in the Netherlands and then Germany reduced the impetus for European politicians to so stridently criticise Turkey; and Turkey has moved on to frying even bigger fish in its blossoming disputes with the US.

This is where we are now: Turkey needs the EU; It needs trade ties, cash inflows, tourists, German businesses. This more than anything has been what has prevented a greater deepening of disputes or a breaking of ties, à la Israel in 2011 (where Turkey broke off ties after the Mavi Marmara incident). Turkey’s government has too much to lose by not quietly backing down. But Turkey’s EU accession process is dead in the water and relations are tense.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were once the darling of the European Union. Not only were they bringing Turkey towards the EU, they were breaking the cycle of the country’s secular elite’s dominance of society, bringing about a wave of social justice and democratisation. They also seemed genuinely willing to break some of the unhealthy cycles in Turkey’s politics of recrimination using a discourse of tolerance of plurality of political opinion.

So, how did we get here? And why was Turkey willing to put so much strain on its ties with the EU? Beyond developments in Europe, the domestic political uncertainty in Turkey, exacerbated by the July 2016 attempted coup d’état, was arguably driving these disputes. For the AKP, the disputes were a way to shore up its support. But it do so, it has fallen back on some of the habits of its predecessors.

Sadly, this uncertainty has its roots in the problems the AKP wanted to move away from. If there is one thing getting in the way of a healthier politics in Turkey, it is the fact that many political players see politics as a zero-sum game, a fight for survival. Many of Turkey’s different political factions or ideologies see losing an election as losing everything. A history of violent coups d’état, street fighting, the banning of political parties and political oppression underlie this. Erdogan himself once spent time in prison for what could be argued was a political crime.

The July 2016 attempted coup d’état, killing hundreds of citizens and seeing at least two assassination attempts on the president, gave the AKP good reason to feel that this threat is still real. The AKP has since 2013 increasingly indulged in conspiratorial, paranoid rhetoric; and while events may make this understandable, the consequences are lamentable.

The tragedy of the AKP’s development over the last years is that senior figures in the party once expressed, as part of a broader opening, a (what seemed at the time) genuine desire to move away from conspiratorial thinking. It was this thinking that saw Turkey as a victim of grand plots led by the West. The AKP represented a new way of doing politics. But they have gone from being the harbingers of a social egalitarianism to the fox-hole defenders of the same; only in adopting this position, they have undermined their initial promise.

The exact process of the change is unclear; opponents of the government say that this tendency was always present. Perhaps the ‘Gezi park’ protests of 2013 and December 2013 corruption scandals were the turning point, or maybe it came earlier with the ‘Ergenekon’ trials. What is clear is last year’s attempted coup d’état exacerbated this tendency. The perception in Turkey that Western countries were slow to respond provided fuel to the narrative that the West does not care, or even supported the coup.

Against this backdrop, criticisms from the EU, even if justified, towards the post-coup purges went down very badly at a time when Turkey sought solidarity. The AKP, since 2013, has increasingly entered ‘bunker mode’, feeling under siege from all sides, even though it possesses a strong popular mandate. But this mentality has seen the party scrambling for any strategy it can find to shore up support, consistently resorting to populism. This has made aggressive rhetoric towards Western countries, nominally partners, appear a reasonable tactic to Turkey’s government.

In this situation of increased tensions, where all taboos have seemingly been transgressed, what was once beyond extreme has become not only imaginable but has happened, and so the level of possible future action has been raised. What this means is that if the government finds itself in a tight spot, with senior politicians’ backs against the wall, radical action on an international level is now part of the go-to tool box.

Relations could well return to the way they were before. Many in Turkey see themselves as part of the West and want good relations with the EU, but preferably on terms that are more favourable for Turkey. Turkey’s economy is still heavily tied to Western Europe’s, far more than with its neighbours. A lot will depend going forward, if there is to be a thaw, on political stability on both sides improving. With Brexit, stalling coalition negotiations in Germany, and scandals continuing to rock Turkey, this appears currently elusive.


George Dyson is Associate Analyst at Control Risks.

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