Ankara risks a downgrade to transactional partnership with the West
If Turkey’s April 16 referendum resulted in sealing unchecked powers for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, marking a massive slide into autocratic rule, the subsequent vote in Strasbourg underlined another historic turning point.
In response to Erdogan’s arbitrary regime that has deepened under the state of emergency, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) downgraded Turkey’s status to second league, alongside Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia.
This means an end to the era of hope that began 15 years ago when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected with the pledge that Turkey would be a member of the European Union with high democratic credentials.
The Council of Europe in a session under joyous circumstances 13 years ago lifted Turkey from its monitored status but the severe and systemic deterioration of fundamental rights and the near total collapse of the rule of law since Turkey’s Gezi Park protests in 2013 mean that the country has become the first for which the monitoring procedure was reopened.
This highlights the dosage of drama, a 180-degree turn, in the AKP’s story.
The vote in PACE, with 113 votes in favour of downgrading and 45 against, is one of the first responses to Turkey’s authoritarianism and it may trigger a chain reaction.
There is little surprise that PACE has been the epicentre of open criticism to Erdogan and the AKP. Turkey has for nearly seven decades been deeply tied to the legal system established by the Council of Europe. The European Court has remained a channel of hope for many who felt mistreated by the authorities; the Venice Commission has been a beacon of democracy as an advisory body for constitutional reform.
Now, by sending Turkey to the lower league, PACE sent a clear message to the European Union that there is a negotiating partner that no longer fulfils the Copenhagen criteria to be able to continue accession talks.
The decision certainly encourages deeper discussion for the European Union. Erdogan’s constant emphasis on reintroducing the death penalty and his refusal to admit concretely that “there is absolutely no journalist in jail, those are only thieves, terrorists and child molesters” had raised eyebrows about Turkish accession. His remarks comparing Germany and the Netherlands to Nazis helped cement the belief that membership under such circumstances is out of the question.
After the PACE vote, pessimists fear even worse consequences inside Turkey. Erdogan, known to be mercurial, may increase domestic pressure against dissenters, pushing for more severe measures, longer detention periods and an extended period of emergency rule — and challenge the Council of Europe by defiance. He may even refuse to allow its monitors to visit the country, simply to force the body to suspend Turkish membership.
Kati Piri, Turkey rapporteur of the European Parliament, said after the PACE vote that “with this constitution, Turkey will never qualify for membership, thus it is meaningless to continue the accession process.”
It was apparent that the EU Commission, too, was on hold until the PACE vote. Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, had urged EU governments to consider changing its relationship with Turkey and called for a “change of format” in ties with Turkey. “The current situation is not sustainable,” he said. But he added the European Union could look at reinforcing cooperation with Turkey in areas other than EU membership that could benefit both sides.
Since the European Union is profoundly scared about the refugee influx into its soil, it will have to shape and offer Erdogan a privileged partnership of some sort, with a reformed customs union as its base. Erdogan, who wants a free ride with the trampling of human rights and democracy, would feel set to discuss such a format, limited to trade and investments and very little else.
In this context, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pursues a line of caution, even more than usual. She is sharply focused on elections in the autumn and wants as little trouble as possible with Erdogan. Her strategy will be to deepen the Turkey debate within the European Union as much as possible to reach consensus.
While deterioration with Europe is clear, it leaves us only with what to expect on the NATO front. US President Donald Trump’s rapid call of congratulations after the much-debated referendum gave Erdogan room to build on legitimacy for the new regime he so meticulously engineered. He is now busy developing a multi-vectorial foreign policy, by meeting with leaders of India, China and Russia before he meets with Trump in mid-May in Washington.
The meeting with the US president will define Turkish- NATO relations as a whole. One can expect almost no regard for human rights or media freedom issues during the talks at the White House. As long as his legitimacy is respected, Erdogan will most likely be set to endorse an alliance through deals.
His utmost concern is the infamous Reza Zarrab case. The US federal court trial is based on breaching Iranian trade embargo, with tens of billions of dollars involved. It implicates Erdogan’s family members and circles linked with the AKP.
In exchange for a favourable deal in the case, Erdogan may be ready to cooperate with the United States in the battle against the Islamic State and even accept the presence of Kurdish fighters in the combat.
So the NATO part of Turkey’s foreign policy will remain minimised to a blend of personal and political interests, aimed at forging the power of the AKP, which soon will be formally led by the mighty president of Turkey.