Turkey’s leaders are heading toward a clear-cut divorce from the European Union, due to current domestic political trends in the country. This is a highly risky course.

Most official voices and expert opinions in Turkey focus on foreign policy considerations and exchanges of reciprocal concessions or benefits. But the EU’s traditional values-based approach has now reached its limits with Ankara, and what is left is a less ambitious, more transactional relationship. That is difficult enough, but potential developments in Turkey could estrange the country further from the EU and the West.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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The ongoing battle of words between the EU and Turkey finds its origin in the destabilization triggered by the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, and the ensuing decline of the rule of law and widespread witch-hunt. These internal developments have a domestic political rationale, but they are at odds with Turkey’s international interests in the trade, financial, and diplomatic fields.

Given the unstable domestic environment in Turkey and Ankara’s proclivity to denounce so-called enemies everywhere to ramp up nationalist feelings, the challenge for the EU is to prevent a further deterioration in relations. EU leaders should stick to four key positions.

First, Turkey is a strategic partner and dialogue channels should remain open. The Syria crisis and terrorism are two reasons among many to keep this dialogue open. Given Turkey’s size and location, permanent instability would be extremely dangerous for both the country and Europe. Despicable terrorist attacks make such cooperation indispensable.

Second, those EU policies and programs under way—such as the EU-Turkey Customs Union, the March 2016 refugee deal, the Erasmus student exchange program, and projects under the EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA)—as well as those frozen by Turkey should be continued or restored, to the benefit of all.

Third, visa liberalization is an important commitment with mutual benefits, and it should not be dropped. The conditions of a deal have been set out since the outset of negotiations in 2013 and haven’t changed. It is Turkey’s situation that has changed, especially with the present wide-ranging antiterrorism law. Visa negotiations cannot result in the EU’s blind approval of current repression in Turkey. Ankara should exert genuine efforts to amend this legislation, with a precise timeframe and measurable outcomes, and should immediately resolve the dozens of unjustified cases.

Fourth, Turkey’s path toward autocratic rule makes progress on EU accession impossible. This need not translate into a formal freeze of membership talks, as suggested by the European Parliament in a vote on November 24, but should certainly lead to a slowdown until better times. The EU simply cannot entertain a normal relationship with a country where thousands of people are jailed or dismissed from their jobs for sending “subliminal messages” or possessing $1 bills. Simultaneously, EU leaders should send a clear message to the Turkish public: Europe is not against Turkey, it is warning the country’s leaders of the dangers of a zero-rule-of-law policy.

Turkey has often invoked the necessity of a summit with the EU. It is highly doubtful that by accepting a high-level meeting, members of the European Council will want to give a popularity boost to the Turkish president, let alone a seal of approval to a one-man-rule system. If they did, they would give a strong signal to populist forces in the forthcoming Dutch, French, and German elections in 2017. Unlike in 2015, more EU bazaar diplomacy with Turkey would lead to electoral trouble at home.

But beyond the immediate horizon, recent events in Turkey—from the December 2013 corruption allegations to the June 2016 coup attempt and the repression of followers of preacher Fethullah Gülen—have revealed an even darker trend that observers tend to overlook.

The overarching objective common to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen movement—the cause, as some of its proponents call it—has been simple: to install an arch-conservative religious society in Turkey, far from Western standards. In such a society, Islamic thinking and rules would gradually replace current secular norms, women’s rights would be reduced, religion would be part and parcel of the education curriculum, and an imam’s degree could lead to a higher education course in business or the military.

During the first twelve years of AKP power after 2002, the government took steps toward a conservative society by stealth or in small installments. The June 2015 election, at which the AKP lost its parliamentary majority, revealed a deep objection to this trend: in a normal European democracy, the ballot would have resulted in a coalition government. But the Turkish president would have none of it, as he considered that his own direct election with 52 percent of the vote in August 2014 called for an executive presidential regime. The June 2015 election was the litmus test for Turkey’s qualification as a European democracy, and Ankara chose to fail it. Then, the July 2016 coup attempt exacerbated the country’s democratic crisis.

Turkey’s attitude vis-à-vis the EU will not be driven by foreign policy considerations. Rather, domestic political requirements will likely impose new strategic choices to push the country toward a societal setup that is hardly compatible with EU and Western standards. Such choices are in sharp contrast with the diversity of Turkish society.

If this trend is confirmed, 2017 could witness a transformation of historical proportions in Turkey.