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Why the EU loves Erdoğan

Why the EU loves Erdoğan

by host

BRUSSELS — There are a lot of reasons for Western leaders not to like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. During his 20-year reign at the top of his country’s politics, the Turkish president has imprisoned journalists and opposition figures, violently cracked down on protesters and woefully managed the economy.

On the foreign policy front, the consummate strongman has cozied up to Russia, launched an incursion into Syria and leveraged its veto in NATO to block Swedish accession at a critical moment for the alliance.

But there’s one reason EU leaders in particular might miss the aging leader should he lose against his centrist challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu when Turks vote in a presidential election on May 14. Having Erdoğan in power, particularly as he has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn in recent years, has allowed the EU to sidestep the question of whether Turkey should join its ranks.

For many European politicains, Erdoğan has been a useful political foil, allowing the EU to legitimately rule out any serious discussion with Ankara about membership.

His  increasingly unacceptable behavior as he has locked up political opponents and railed against rule-of-law norms has given the EU the political cover to avoid the issue.

A change in regime could alter that dynamic. 

“What we’ve seen over the past number of years is Turkey and the EU move in opposite directions,” said Selim Kuneralp, a former Turkish ambassador to the European Union. “Turkey under Erdoğan has moved away from European values; the accession process has stalled completely with the result that the idea of Turkey becoming a member of the European Union is no longer a credible objective.”

Fractious relationship

The story of EU-Turkey relations goes back more than 60 years. In 1959, Turkey applied for association with the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU, leading to the signing of the Ankara Agreement in 1963. 

While a series of coups and economic and political instability put the issue of Turkish-EU integration on the backburner, by the 1980s the accession process was back on track. In 1987, Turkey applied to join the EEC.  A decade later it was granted candidate status, and the country began to take significant steps to meet the accession criteria set out by the EU.

It was around this time that Erdoğan came to power. Then, a reformist leader of the new Justice and Development Party (AKP), he spoke of pluralism, democracy and harmony, even opening up peace talks with the Kurdish PKK group. 

He set to work, introducing reforms that brought Turkey closer to meeting EU criteria, like changing the laws around the country’s military, to subject it to civilian control. (Though praised by the European Commission at the time, those changes in fact laid the ground for Erdoğan to assume more control of the military later.)

After a brief honeymoon period, relations with Brussels soon soured. Erdoğan grew increasingly frustrated with the pace of EU accession; several member states made it clear that they were less than keen to admit Turkey to the club.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu greets his supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey in May 2022 | Burak Kara/Getty Images

This dichotomy set the tone for an increasingly fractious relationship.

‘Standstill’

A number of issues are to blame for the deteriorating relations — with both sides pointing the finger at the other.

The EU’s decision to admit Cyprus in 2004 has been a constant point of friction. Turkey has occupied the northern part of the island since 1974 — a fact Nicosia wants to see addressed before it agrees to closer ties between the EU and Ankara.

Then there was the Sarkozy effect. In 2011, the French president made a brief five-hour visit to the Turkish capital. Chewing gum nonchalantly as he arrived in Ankara, his message was clear: Turkish membership of the EU was a no-no for France. Multiple officials told POLITICO this visit was a turning point for Erdoğan.

On the other side of the relationship, it was Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn that sounded the death knell for the country’s membership prospects.

His brutal suppression of the Gezi Park protests in 2013 presaged an even more draconian response to a failed coup attempt in 2016. Erdoğan locked up tens of thousands of people, then solidified his power in a constitutional referendum in 2017, leaving the country’s EU membership prospects in tatters.

Specifically, his heavy-handedness flew in the face of the Copenhagen criteria — the conditions any country wanting to join the EU must fulfil, and which include safeguards around rule of law, human rights and protection for minorities.

By 2018, EU leaders had had enough. A European Council statement that year put it bluntly: Turkey’s accession negotiations “have come to a standstill.” 

‘Better atmosphere’

The big question hanging over EU-Turkey relations is whether that will change after Turks head to the polls on Sunday.

The election, once seen as Erdoğan’s to lose, has become one of the biggest tests of his political career, with polls showing him neck and neck with the Kılıçdaroğlu-led opposition.

A change in government would likely breathe fresh air into the partnership between Turkey and the West. Kılıçdaroğlu has said he wants to restart the EU accession process and will commit Turkey to complying with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, another departure from Erdoğan.

But the prospect of a new leadership in Turkey may not eliminate many of the underlying causes of friction. “The domestic challenges will remain the same, whoever is in power,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank. “There is a deep economic crisis, and the current government is offering all sorts of populist measures to alleviate the current crisis ahead of the election, which will stop after the election.”

People walk past a campaign vehicle carrying a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a busy shopping district in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 3 | Burak Kara/Getty Images

Washington has made little secret of its desire for a change of government in Turkey, an important member of NATO. In 2019, Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, said that the U.S. should support Turkish opposition leaders “to take on and defeat Erdoğan.” “He has to pay a price [for his authoritarianism],” the future U.S. president said in an interview — comments that infuriated the Turkish government.

Lindenstrauss predicted a “better atmosphere” between Brussels and Ankara should Kılıçdaroğlu come to power. The centrist’s six-party opposition bloc has signaled it wants to reset relations with the EU and will move to reverse some of Erdoğan’s measures that were in breach of the Copenhagen criteria, such as reverting to a parliamentary rather than presidential system.

But the underlying issues —most importantly Cyprus, but also the prospect of a huge, relatively poor population joining the bloc— will mean few in Europe will be racing to open the door. Though few will say it publicly, many countries are also wary of allowing a majority Muslim country like Turkey to join. 

“There is no way that EU member states are anywhere close to contemplating EU membership for Turkey,” is how a senior EU diplomat in Brussels put it.

New beginnings

Lindenstrauss said she could imagine progress on issues like visa liberalization or an update of the customs union between the EU and Turkey, which has been in existence since 1995, but probably not much beyond that. “I join the skeptics by saying that I think the problems of Turkey’s EU accession existed before Erdoğan’s autocratic turn,” she said.

Ilke Toygür, a senior associate with CSIS, a think tank, said that modernizing the association agreement between the two sides is one way to revitalize relations. “Instead, EU policymakers should adopt a more suitable institutional framework,” she said. She suggested the two sides might benefit from an association agreement like the ones the EU has with other countries who started the accession process more recently.

A revamped agreement could cover issues like climate action, migration and trade, and would improve the relationship with Brussels, smoothing the way when it comes to the more difficult issue of accession.

Others were more skeptical and suggested that not everybody in Europe would necessarily be celebrating a loss by Erdoğan. “For some in the EU it may be favorable to have an authoritarian leader next door, and a more transactional relationship with Turkey, than to seriously deal with the issue of accession,” said Galip Dalay, a Turkey specialist at the Chatham House think tank. 

“A democratic Turkey would pose a much more fundamental issue for Europe,” he added.

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