Turkey’s EU accession that began in October 2005 has never been at a lower point than today. Relations have been on a downward trend ever since the heavy-handed response to last year’s Gezi protests. The corruption allegations in Turkey against people close to the government and the failure to investigate them have made it worse. The straw that really broke the camel’s back was the December 14th raids, which were the final stage in worsening the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Following recent changes to the law, the purge targeting journalists and a police chief close to the Gülen movement have prompted unprecedented reaction from the EU.
Barely a week after her high level visit to Turkey, Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign affairs and Security Policy, together with Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, issued a strong statement describing the arrests as incompatible with freedom of the media, a core principle of democracy.
President Erdoğan’s rapid reaction was to tell the EU to mind its own business. “They say they will give a democracy lesson to Turkey. Come here, so we can give you a lesson in democracy” he said.
If the Turkish President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister all assumed that their defiant language in response to the criticism would have made the EU back off, they clearly miscalculated.
For it increased the feeling that it can no longer be “business as usual” and turned some of the best-known Turkey supporters against them. In all the years I have known him, Andrew Duff, a European policy expert and a former Member of the European Parliament was one of them. In an article he wrote for Euractiv.com , he called for Turkey’s EU accession negotiations to be suspended.
“Erdogan knows how to be elected democratically but not to govern so. The opposition parties are insulted. Religious and cultural minorities, notably the Alevis, are discriminated against. The liberal media, NGOs and universities are assailed. The reform of mainstream state education is neglected in favour of Islamic [Imam] Hatip schools. Secular liberal Turkey is challenged by the rise of conservative Islamic family policy. In short, Turkey is becoming less and less European” he said.
Speaking at the European Parliament on 17th December, another Turkey-friendly parliamentarian Marietje Scaake was even more outspoken. “Our dream of a European Turkey has turned into a nightmare” she said, adding, “It is time for a wake-up call”.
Europeans monitor and analyse Turkey better than Turkish officials give them credit for. Marietje Scaake’s comments about the nature of the past relationship between the Erdoğan government and the Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen and his supporters were spot on.
“Members of the Fethullah Gülen Hizmet movement and the AKP have created monsters together by helping each other in a coalition that long turned against everything on their combined path. Now, they turned against each other leading to even more violations of the rule of law” she said.
Protesting “the unlawful intimidation by state officials of journalists and other free voices in Turkey, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, backdoor pressures on media bosses, and unacceptable smear campaigns against those who seek to expose corruption and official abuses,” The Association of European Journalists (AEJ) also acknowledged the past complicity of those journalists detained. The AEJ was aware of the accused journalists and their media being silent or even supportive before the detention and arrests of journalists such as Ahmet Şık, Nedim Şener and Soner Yalçın, but made it clear that “this cannot be a reason to stay silent against the treatment they are confronted with today”.
The AEJ’s President Otmar Lahodynsky and Vice President and The Representative for Media Freedom William Horsley called on the Turkish authorities to produce evidence to show that the arrests were ordered for legitimate democratic and lawful reasons, and not simply to protect those in positions of high public office. “A free press cannot be silent, and a regime which silences the press and journalists cannot be called democratic” their statement said.
It is Turkey’s falling standards in democratic institutions, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary that dragged the relationship into a deep crisis. However, with the present security situation in the Middle East, worsening relations with Russia and the fragility of the European economies, the EU is not likely to act rashly. Equally, the NATO member Turkey, which receives the largest part of its foreign direct investment from the EU, its biggest trading partner, cannot afford to walk away from the EU.
Yet, both sides have their increasingly reluctant publics to reckon with.
According to the latest public opinion survey by TNS Piar in Turkey, support for European Union membership has fallen to its lowest level in recent years. The support among the Turkish public is now as low as 28 %, compared to 38% six months ago.
In the EU member countries, the European Parliament elections in May 2014 brought many more Eurosceptic members in. With growing fears of Islamic fundamentalism and uncontrolled immigration, public support for the enlargement of the EU is getting smaller each day.
Turkey’s belligerent tone towards EU institutions grates even more when relations with individual countries are getting more complicated, too.
If the allegations prove to be right, the arrest of three Turkish citizens accused of spying on the Turkish community in Germany is likely to make matters worse. Unconfirmed reports suggest one of the accused may be closely linked to Turkish government circles.
It is one thing to regress in your own country and then to blame the foreign lobbies and spies for everything, and another to be accused of sending spies to stir things up in somebody else’s backyard.
This post is also available in: Turkish