Post-referendum Turkey is bound to see its relations redefined

Sunday 16/04/2017

Lose if you do, lose if you don’t. This summarises the mood among Ankara’s allies, partners and international counterparts after the historic referendum in Turkey.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the European Union and NATO already had a sense of being locked in a narrow room whose walls have been filled with question marks pointing out to Turkey. Also, the Council of Europe has been feeling a geomet­ric rise of pressure with its rela­tions with Ankara, over the collapse of rule of law.

The very nature of the referen­dum, which means a regime change in Turkey, explains why there has been a stand-by mode in those quarters for weeks. How­ever, if we pay attention to the mood, especially in the European Union, it seems neither a “yes” nor a “no” victory will help put Turkey’s relations with Europe on the right track.

It appears clear to the EU circles that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarded the accession process, until some years ago, only as means to dispose of his adversaries on all levels. A victory will mean that it will be the European Union’s turn to be disposed of.

Except only one dimension: Business. This is the point some circles in the European Union raise, with the arguments based on the concept of stability. Although others wave it off as a false one, saying that an autocrat on top of a socially complex, large country is doomed to be short-term, with even nastier consequences.

In this lose-lose dilemma, pragmatists — or “realists” — may come out winning.

With Brexit paving the way for a new format in favour of special status to some close neighbour­hood countries, Turkey and Great Britain may end up with some form of privileged partnerships on the far western and far eastern flank of the bloc’s borders.

Indeed, a statement from Erdogan’s palace in late March has the potential of encouraging such a model. “Turkey will review all political and administrative ties with the European Union after the April referendum but will maintain economic relations,” said the text, which was well-noted in Brussels.

Proponents of minimising relations with Turkey to the trade and commerce level assume that Erdogan, already a single ruler of Turkey, finds the ground ripe. They may be right.

The hard-core issue that more than anything else bothers Erdogan is the accusations of large-scale corruption, extending into the breaches of Iranian embargo and allegations of illegal armaments of jihadists in Syria.

He wants those blemishes to disappear, to be forgotten. This issue is very helpful to explain why Turkey under his iron rule has been tarnished and has fallen out with the international community.

So, pragmatists in the European Union feel that treating Turkey as yet another Gulf state, with no longer a membership perspective and with a total European disre­gard to the collapse of its demo­cratic order, would help an Erdogan-style “stability” by regular trade and by keeping the EU soil off-limits to mass emigra­tion.

Challenges are at the doorstep. “EU heads of state and government may not want to sit around a table with the Turkish president anytime soon. Except for [Group of 20] G20 summits, future political discussions will probably take place at lower levels than sum­mitry,” wrote Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador in Ankara, in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment.

He sees thin prospects for repairing relations and only through modernising the Customs Union, which is mutually benefi­ciary.

“As long as the rules of the European club are perceived as impositions on Turkey, no pro­gress can be expected, and negotiations will remain in limbo,” he concluded.

An even more severe confronta­tion is expected with NATO. Last year’s coup left the army at its weakest structural shape, with an apparent disgruntlement against Erdogan remnant.

His profound anxiety over corruption allegations moved him closer to Russia, and the high number of defections of Turkish officers to various European countries added to suspicions within NATO over whether Turkey, with the current military leader­ship, is a reliable partner.

As opposed to the European Union, NATO operates on military codes and it is there one will see how post-referendum Turkey will shape its future.