Turkey’s mixed signals to Europe fail to impress

Erdogan’s administration appears to be entirely without compass with respect to the world map.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference after a “Reform Action Group” meeting in Ankara, on August 29. (AFP)
Desperate moves. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference after a “Reform Action Group” meeting in Ankara, on August 29. (AFP)

In an episode of the American television series “House of Cards,” President Francis Underwood tells his wife and aides about a person who lacks “a North Star,” which is to say he can change alliances and loyalties all too easily.

These days, many are wondering if the same might be true of decision makers in Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration appears to be entirely without compass with respect to the world map. Or, to use another analogy, like a tired starfish, Turkey is drifting with the tide, sometimes on one part of the shore, sometimes on the other.

August 29 offered a spectacular example of the depths of the confusion, or, as some observers say, despair. Four members of Erdogan’s cabinet urgently met with the media and declared a “reform group” for the EU accession process was now in action. The cabinet members were Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul, Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.

It was apparent the meeting was initiated by Albayrak because of Turkey’s economic problems. He praised statements from European leaders, comparing them to what he described as “the process that has been begun by the United States from the beginning of August, targeting the Turkish economy.”

Cavusoglu made many pledges, including accelerated judicial reform. He mentioned freedoms and fundamental rights and he called for the restarting of talks to modernise the customs union with the European Union.

About an hour after the event, Omer Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), was in front of the cameras. Celik, who is regarded part of Erdogan’s inner circle, said that sit-in protests such as by the Saturday Mothers would no longer be tolerated.

The Saturday Mothers, who have been seeking information about their relatives who disappeared in the 1980s and ‘90s, have protested in Istanbul for 700 weeks. On August 25, the sit-in was banned, leading to violence and the arrest of more than 40 people. Authorities on September 1 refused to allow a Saturday Mother demonstration.

Even as the “reform group” was talking about bringing Turkey’s European membership process on track, there were reports on revival of the death penalty. Erdogan and Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party, which is in a coalition with AKP, reportedly agreed to reintroduce the death penalty for certain crimes, including acts of terror.

To call these signals mixed would be an understatement. What’s complicating matters is French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement to his country’s assembled diplomats. Macron asked: “Do we think today that in a clear and honest manner we can continue accession negotiations with Turkey to join the European Union?”

He said the Erdogan administration had a “pan-Islamic project that is contrary to European values.” He argued that the European Union should focus on building a “strategic partnership” with Ankara. It was time, he said, for an end to the “hypocrisy” of the 13-years-old accession talks.

With this, Paris joined Vienna (and Nicosia) in declaring itself solidly against Turkish membership of the European Union. Many other EU members agree with that position and are supportive, at least behind closed doors.

Undeniably, Erdogan’s decisive ending of the reform process over the past six years has been helpful in creating a strong pretext for a consolidated European position on Turkish membership. Brussels will remain unwilling to move forward unless Turkey takes concrete steps to return to a democratic order.

However, the major question remains: Will, as Macron hopes, the hypocrisy end? The fact is Turkey has long been a strategic partner of the West. The issue here is hiding a transactional partnership behind a marketable brand for all the parties.

Given the collapse of rule of law and separation of powers in Turkey, the game is over for Ankara in terms of EU membership and even European visa liberalisation unless massive attempts are made to restore the system.

The hope in Ankara, under immense strain due to economic decline and a historic rupture with the United States, is that economic relations with its biggest trading partner are saved through a modernised customs union.

The European Union’s concern about Turkey is genuine. By any means necessary it will push for a transactional partnership to secure three fronts and serve its self-interest. It wants Erdogan to maintain curbs on the Syrian refugee flow and block Turkish dissidents from fleeing to the European Union. Turkey should continue to serve as a buffer against the jihadist threat and trade between Turkey and the European Union should continue, free of commitments imposed by the accession process.

There is no room for false hopes. Erdogan’s critics say the new thaw is but a shadow play and cannot obscure the despair in Ankara, as Turkey becomes ever more ungovernable.