Following Turkey’s failed July 15 coup attempt, which caused deep shock in the country’s entire society and state apparatus, the Turkish authorities launched a massive crackdown on suspected followers of the movement of Fethullah Gülen, a former ally turned archenemy of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Beyond Gülenists and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist movement, the crackdown soon extended to a large number of media outlets and journalists, businesses, and, more recently, democratically elected deputies of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP), while social media have been shut down. The state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt, already in its second three-month term, is here to stay, declared a minister on November 2.
Despite a recurrent governmental narrative that post-coup corrective measures are within the boundaries of the law, Turkey is perceived in the West as rolling back what is left of its rule-of-law architecture and being on the road to autocracy. The country’s leadership is acting in ballot-box terms and has set its sights on a referendum needed to amend the constitution and install a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. Turkey’s leaders are governing through a series of abrupt moves, making citizens subject to arbitrary decisions and leaving the country’s international partners with an unpredictable interlocutor. For the West, Turkey has entered a danger zone with multiple risks.
In the military domain, NATO is bound to ask itself questions about the reliability of the Turkish Armed Forces, which were largely shaken by the July 15 coup attempt and the massive ensuing reshuffle: 40 percent of all generals and admirals were removed, 400 personnel withdrawn from NATO structures, and several fighters’ squadrons taken out of operation. Turkey’s participation in NATO’s missile defense shield remains unclear. Similarly, the United States is bound to reassess the safety and operability of its stock of nuclear warheads that are pre-positioned at the Incirlik Air Base.
In the immediate future, and mostly for internal reasons, Turkey is leaning toward involving its forces in the battles for Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, a move not approved by the international coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. This entails the risk of a NATO member being on an unwanted collision course with Iraqi, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, or Syrian Kurdish forces, which would add massive complications to an already-complex crisis.
On the political side, the EU and the United States are assessing the dependability of an ally in which co-chairs and deputies of the third-largest party in the parliament, the HDP, are jailed and the second-biggest party, the CHP, and its chairman are subjected to a judicial process. Parliamentary immunity, a crucial feature of democracy, has fallen victim to the government’s post-coup strategy. With such an all-out confrontation strategy, the risk of civil strife is obvious.
Experience shows that routinely using conspiracy theories, designating ubiquitous enemies from within and abroad, and shattering the rule of law are hardly reversible trends. Return to a democratic political framework is now uncertain. The expectation that Turkey will adopt Western liberal democratic values is no longer there, to the detriment of Turkish society and its liberal citizens.
On the economic front, the Turkish economy is showing signs of a downward turn, as illustrated by the freezing of about 10 percent of the Turkish Airlines fleet, hitherto a symbol of the AKP’s economic performance. Similarly, continued degradation of the rule of law—or, indeed, the possibility of civil strife—entails a potential disruption in the manufacturing activities of EU firms that have located major production sites in Turkey thanks to the EU-Turkey Customs Union. The same goes for a host of major EU operators in the fields of retail trade, banking and insurance, and energy.
In this heated atmosphere of runaway politics, there seems to be no limit to populist statements—or to outright distortion of facts when it comes to the EU’s position on the July 15 coup attempt: while EU institutions were the first to condemn the coup in no uncertain terms, Ankara lamented that the EU didn’t show empathy toward Turkey. Similarly, on the massive amount of EU humanitarian assistance currently channeled at record speed to Syrian refugees in Turkey, Ankara keeps claiming that it hasn’t seen any help—in fact, it means it hasn’t received a blank check. The perceived necessities of domestic politics have stopped bearing any relationship to Turkey’s situation on the international scene or to the EU’s positive policies with Turkey.
In this context, the EU’s customary condemnations and warnings will have no effect whatsoever. On November 1, in response to a tweet by the European Parliament president that Turkey’s post-coup purge marked a redline against the freedom of expression, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım stated squarely, “Brother, we don’t care about your red lines. It’s the people who draw the red line.” Eight days later, when the European Commission released its 2016 progress report on Turkey stressing that the country’s rule of law was backsliding, Turkey’s EU minister commented that the document used “double standards” concerning the fight against terrorism, while pro-government media called it a “shameful” report.
Despite this seemingly closed horizon, the EU is not short of options. Five stand out.
First, the union should keep channels of communication open with those in the Turkish leadership who are ready to entertain a mutually respectful dialogue. A battle of harsh words will lead nowhere.
Second, the EU should stick to its values-based narrative and strong support for the rule of law, a free press, and a vibrant civil society. In so doing, the EU should carefully distinguish Turkey’s citizens from the country’s leadership.
Third, Brussels should publicly correct Ankara’s routine distortion of information, whether on the EU’s reaction to the coup attempt, EU aid to Syrian refugees, or the process of liberalizing visa arrangements for Turkish citizens traveling to EU countries. Gross misrepresentations are no longer acceptable.
Fourth, the union should formally draw Ankara’s attention to the fact that further dismantling the rule-of-law environment would not only badly hurt Turkey’s economy but also adversely and directly affect existing EU investments, let alone future investments.
Finally, Brussels and Ankara should make progress where it is still possible and mutually beneficial, for example on modernizing the Customs Union.
Other compartments of the EU-Turkey relationship, such as the country’s accession negotiations or the visa liberalization process, will be left for better times. However, there should be no formal cancellation of these talks, nor should Brussels give Turkey a so-called conditionality discount that would allow Ankara to escape its obligations in these two domains. Similarly, no one in Turkey should be surprised if members of the European Council—EU heads of state and government—become much cooler toward hosting top-level meetings with Turkey.
Turkey’s crisis is very deep and largely domestic. Sadly, this means the EU has no direct handle on the course of short-term developments. But for the sake of the longer term, the EU should remain steady on values and rights and should clearly indicate to the Turkish leadership the limits of constantly bullying a major political, economic, and social partner for the purpose of running away from trouble at home.