Opinion

How Turkey’s Erdogan Played Europe - and Won

For years, the EU believed talks with Turkey over membership granted them leverage to curb its descent into authoritarianism. That was a European delusion.

Riot police use water cannons to disperse people protesting against the arrest of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party lawmakers, Istanbul, November 5, 2016.
Kemal Aslan, Reuters

There's another crisis in EU-Turkey relations. The European Parliament stated the obvious when it passed a resolution to freeze Turkey’s accession talks a few days ago. For years, discussions over Turkey’s membership were stalled. Although it is the European Commission that has the final say, the European Parliament’s non-binding motion shows that EU-Turkish relations have now reached their lowest ebb. 

But it doesn’t really matter. Europe never had any leverage with Turkey anyway. Their belief that the EU accession talks granted that leverage was deluded from the start. 
 
The resolution to freeze talks with Turkey was motivated by concerns about the state of Turkey’s democracy and its repressive measures after last summer’s attempted coup. As highlighted in its most recent yearly accession progress report, Europe is concerned about Turkey’s loosely defined anti-terrorism laws, the erosion of legal and political checks and balances, the continued arrests of journalists, the state of freedom of expression, and the broad nature of the post-coup crackdowns. 
 
Indeed, Turkey’s purges appear to be targeted not only against the Gulen Movement, followers of the self-exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara alleges was the coup’s ringleader, but against anyone opposed to Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 
 
After the coup attempt, Ankara declared its intention to reinstall the death penalty. This was a red line for Brussels. 
 
But Europe’s concerns continuously fell on deaf ears. Ankara didn’t appear to mind European criticism over the arrest of leading members of the Kurdish oriented HDP earlier in November on spurious terrorism related charges, despite the German and Danish foreign ministers summoning Turkish ambassadors for an explanation. Also in November, Europe’s condemnation of arrested journalists associated with opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet were practically ignored. “We don’t care about your red line,” was President Erdogan’s frank response. 
 
Even before the European parliament’s debate on whether to freeze Turkey’s accession, President Erdogan had already brushed it aside, commenting a day earlier that it has “no value.” Instead he called for greater Turkish participation in the Russian-led Shanghai Pact
 
In reality, the EU has never had any leverage over Turkey. European policy makers never quite understood the real motivation behind Turkey’s ruling AKP’s push for EU accession. 

It was never about greater democracy. It was not even the economy. The AKP saw the EU process as a welcome means of weakening the Turkish military’s ability to influence the country’s domestic political agenda, not least to end its history of political interventions (from coups downwards), but also its status as guardians of Turkey as a secular republic. Erdogan and the AKP also considered the EU as a means to obtain political legitimacy. 
 
Although coming into power with a landslide electoral victory in 2002, the founding members of the AKP (including Erdogan himself) had a desperate need to convince both the Turkish population and the international community that they did not have an Islamist agenda. They had a history of involvement in Islamic political parties, most especially in the Welfare Party, ousted by the military in 1997. Many secular Turks did not trust them.
 
EU-friendly policies were a show for the Turkish public as well as the international community. The message was that the AKP had shed its Islamist past. 
 
During the AKP’s first term in government (2002-2007) it oversaw several EU-oriented legislation packages. These reforms greatly reduced the dominance of the military in politics. The institutional power of Turkey’s military, as exercised through the National Security Council, was reduced. So was the armed forces’ involvement in civilian bodies such as the Council of Higher Education and the Supreme Communication Board. Soon, the EU was remarking that civil-military relations in Turkey were reaching a level on par with other EU-member states.
 
However, the AKP still failed to win political legitimacy or prevent the wrath of the military. In 2008 it faced the threat of closure from the constitutional court for its alleged violations of the country’s secular principles. Although it escaped being shut down, it was obliged to pay a hefty fine. 
 
Rather than legitimizing AKP rule, Ankara soon perceived the EU as challenging it. EU leaders were vocal in their opposition to Turkish heavy-handed tactics against protests at Gezi Park in 2013 who were demonstrating against government plans to demolish the park. The AKP saw the protest as an attempt to oust the government
 
EU ties also did not prevent stirrings within the military against the AKP government. The Balyoz and Ergenekon cases from 2008 onwards (which were later overturned) alleged that elements within the military were conspiring to overthrow the AKP government. 
 
Last summer when the AKP faced a coup attempt, Ankara resented the lack of support from the EU and begrudged criticism against its ongoing crackdowns that have left hundreds of thousands either under arrest or dismissed from their posts. 
 
The EU parliament’s motion will have no effect on Erdogan and the AKP. They have simply brushed it aside, even threatening to allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to flood into Europe. If anything Erdogan has gained kudos for his defiance from his eager supporters. The EU now, as before, can do little to prevent Turkey’s accelerating slide away from democracy.    

Simon A. Waldman and Emre Caliskan are the authors of the recently published "The New Turkey and Its Discontents." Follow them on Twitter: @simonwaldman1 and @calemre.