Identity Crisis: Turkey, Europe, and Erdoğan

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seen Turkey move further from European integration than it's been in decades. Is there any way back? Published in Bloomberg Businessweek, 3 May 2015

In June, Turks will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. For voters the outcome is likely to seem rather familiar. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP) has won the past three general elections and is expected to win again. Erdoğan is the dominant figure of his era in Turkish politics. He served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and last year was elected president. Indeed, a large proportion of the population have known little else but his rule—half of Turkey’s 77 million people are 30 years or younger and have grown up with him at the forefront of Turkish political power.

But familiarity hasn’t necessarily bred admiration. Erdoğan’s led the country in a more conservative direction and has been criticised for being overly authoritarian and restricting dissent. He’d like to use the June election as a springboard to push through constitutional changes that will hand more power to the presidency. For some, that doesn’t seem a particularly enticing prospect. “If Erdoğan wins the election he is going to change the situation to be like an American or an Argentinian system,” says Çağatay Özdemir, a 26-year-old university graduate from Istanbul. “I think we will have more problems with freedom of speech because it is going to be a one-man country. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I think no one would like to live in a country where one man rules.”

For many young Turkish people, one troubling issue is their country’s changing relationship with Europe. During Erdoğan’s time in office, Turkey’s gone from being an eager candidate for EU membership to somewhat more aloof and distant. Negotiations are continuing with Brussels, but the government in Ankara often appears more enthusiastic about strengthening ties with other countries. Anyone in Turkey who harbours dreams of studying, working or even just regularly visiting EU countries is having their patience tested. “I don’t think we’re a European country anymore—maybe because of the direction that Mr. Erdoğan is taking us,” says Özdemir “The direction is to have closer ties to Russia and the Arab countries. In Istanbul you can see it: We have a lot of Arab tourists these days.”

If you spend any time In Istanbul, it’s easy to think that Turkey could slip seamlessly into the EU. Europe is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, its biggest source of inward investment and European brands are everywhere. Young locals on the pedestrianised Istiklal Street appear just as keen to shop in Zara or Mango as their counterparts in Rome or Madrid. The subsidiaries of European banks like BNP Paribas and HSBC are scattered around the city centre; farther out, offices are filled by the likes of Unilever and BASF.

In many ways the mixture of cultures is no different from what you can see in Berlin, Paris or London. From the Istanbul Modern Art Museum in the Beyoğlu district you can look across the water towards the Topkapi Palace and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and muse on how easily the city seems to blend old and new, east and west. Beyond the cosmopolitan, commercial centre of the country, Turkey can feel very different. In the far-east city of Kars the streets are grubby and badly paved, the buildings are tatty and there isn’t much sign of prosperity—not least because the nearby border to Armenia remains firmly shut. A dark grey fort sits brooding on a hill overlooking the town, but there isn’t really much to look at down below. It represents the more insular narrative in a tale of two countries.

This October will mark a decade since the start of Turkey’s EU accession talks. It will be an uncomfortable anniversary for those hoping that Ankara might one day firmly anchor itself to a European identity. Over the ten years there’s been very little progress—and there appears to be little optimism that things will change any time soon. “There is a huge amount of interaction, vastly increased joint interests between Turkey and the EU,” says Marc Pierini, the EU’s ambassador to Turkey between 2006 and 2011. “Yet we do not see much progress, especially if you judge from the standard of the accession standpoint.”

That view is echoed in Turkey. “The last ten years have witnessed a conspicuous absence of reasonable progress towards Turkey’s membership to the EU,” says Eyüp Ersoy, senior researcher at the International Strategic Research Organisation in Ankara. “I am of the conviction that the prospects of Turkey eventually joining the EU remain unpromising.”

Turkey’s dealings with the EU go back much further than the last ten years. It signed an association agreement with the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner to the EU, in December 1964. In 1995 the two sides agreed a customs union and Turkey was recognised as a candidate member for the EU in December 1999. Negotiations to join the club began in October 2005, when Erdoğan was prime minister. To date, the talks have focused on 14 areas (known as “chapters” in the lingo of Brussels) ranging across topics as diverse as science and research, taxation and food safety. There are plenty of points of disagreement, particularly on the status of northern Cyprus.

Ankara is the only government in the world to recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; everyone else thinks the northern half of the island has been illegally occupied since Turkey invaded in 1974. Until that issue is settled, Turkey can’t join the EU, not least because the move will be blackballed by Greece and Cyprus. Indeed, Brussels has refused to even begin negotiations on eight other chapters until the Cypriot question is resolved. “At least technically, the solution of the Cyprus question is the key to Turkey’s EU membership,” says Sylvia Tiryaki, deputy director of the Global Political Trends Center at Istanbul Kültür University.

Even if the diplomats and politicians can find a way past the issue of Cyprus, other concerns are likely to prove just as tricky. The idea of such a populous, relatively poor country joining the EU is bound to raise the hackles of the anti-immigrant political parties that are gaining ground across Europe— all the more so because it’s a Muslim-majority country. The avowedly secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 has been gradually eroded during Erdoğan’s time as prime minister and president, with Islamic conservatism gaining a more prominent public role.

Erdoğan himself used to proudly promote the idea of EU membership, but these days he’s rather more combative towards Brussels. While he often insists that Turkey wants to join the EU, he says it needs to happen on his terms. “It does not matter whether they admit us in or not. We continue our work as planned,” said Erdoğan in a press conference on 24 January. “Turkey is a strong country now. If you think Turkey will come to your door to beg, it will not come to your door begging for accession.” In the same speech he appeared to goad his European counterparts when he said, “Actually, we are testing Europe. Will it be able to digest and accept Turkey, whose people are Muslims? Are they against Islamophobia or not? If they oppose Islamophobia, then they must admit Turkey into the EU.”

All this is leading to a growing wariness in Europe towards Turkey. “We don’t know if Turkey is still a partner for us or not,” said Pierre Defraigne, executive director of think-tank Madariaga College of Europe Foundation, at an event in Brussels in January. The tone of comments coming from Turkish authorities isn’t always welcomed by politicians in Brussels either. “Turkey is a candidate country and strategically also a very important country, so when there are problems in the relationship the reaction should not be to walk away, to freeze, to isolate the country, it should be to engage further,” says Kati Piri, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and its rapporteur on Turkey. “Of course it would help if there would be a bit more diplomatic language coming from the Turkish government. That would really help the politicians here in Brussels to remain constructive.”

Even as their leaders ramp up the rhetoric, the Turkish people appear more positive towards the EU these days. A poll conducted last year by the German Marshall Fund, a Washington headquartered non-profit organisation, found that 53 per cent of Turks think EU membership would be a good thing—a rise of eight percentage points on the previous year’s poll and the first time there’s been a majority in favour in five years. Among the reasons why the public is in favour include the view that membership has strengthened European economies (29 per cent), that it would allow people to work, travel and study around the EU (22 per cent), and that the EU has maintained peace in Europe (20 per cent).

Another reason, according to Tiryaki, is that people view EU membership as a way to entrench democracy and social freedoms. “Even though the majority don’t believe that Turkey will become a member of the EU, they support the process,” she says. “I think the main reason behind that is they realise that’s the key to democratisation, or keeping up the pace of further democratisation of the country.”

Since Erdoğan took office as prime minister in 2003, Turkey has seen impressive economic growth and improvements to its citizens’ quality of life. Access to healthcare and education has been expanded, there’s been heavy investment in the country’s infrastructure and GDP has almost tripled. However, some of the country’s values seem to have been getting lost along the way: Freedom of speech has suffered and the room for political debate narrowed. “The average Turk leads a far better life today than a decade ago. But at the same time, Erdoğan’s mode of governance is deeply illiberal. He is convinced that he knows best, and has little patience for dissent or due process,” wrote Hakan Altinay, director of the European School of Politics in Istanbul, in a paper for the German Marshall Fund published in March called Taking Illiberalism Seriously.

Among the more recent incidents, the authorities cut access to social media sites like Twitter and YouTube in April to prevent images being circulated of the death of Mehmet Selim Kiraz, a prosecutor who’d been taken hostage by a militant leftist group. In the same month, Erdoğan called journalists who’d been jailed “terrorists” and Turkish state television banned an election ad by the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), ahead of the parliamentary elections on 7 June. Erdoğan’s also expended a lot of energy battling the so-called “parallel structure,” as the Gülen Movement led by US-based preacher Fethullah Gülen is known. (Gülen is a former ally of Erdoğan). Whatever the motivations, the type of control Erdoğan and AKP is exerting  isn't going down well in Brussels. “Domestically, Turkey is not going in a good direction, [in terms of] freedom of expression, freedom of the media,” says Marc Otte, director general of the Egmont Institute, a Belgian think-tank.

The constitutional reforms that Erdoğan’s pursuing adds to the sense of unease. Under the current constitution, the prime minister’s the most powerful figure in the political system, with the president acting as more of a ceremonial figurehead. That suited Erdoğan when he was prime minister, but since being elected president in August 2014 he’s continued to exert influence on the government behind the scenes while arguing for a new political setup in which the presidency holds executive power. Erdoğan needs his Justice & Development Party (AKP) to win 367 of the 550 parliamentary seats in the upcoming election if it’s to push through constitutional changes. Alternatively, if it won 330 seats it could initiate a referendum. While there’s little doubt that the party will win the election, it’s questionable whether it will gain the size of majority it needs, or indeed whether it would be able to win a popular referendum. The outcome of the election could hinge on whether the main Kurdish party, the People’s’ Democratic Party (HDP), gets over the 10 per cent threshold needed to take up seats in the parliament—if it does it could cost the AKP as many as 30 seats.

Erdoğan tends to refute concerns that he’s trying to accumulate too much power, insisting that the changes will benefit Turkey as a whole. In April he told a meeting of provincial leaders at the Presidential Palace in Ankara that, “We could only advance this far with the current system. If we want to move forward, we have to change the system. Otherwise, we will just tread water or, even worse, we will decline.”

The problem from the EU’s perspective is that while it may be uneasy about how Erdoğan exercises power and his efforts to amass more, it’s at the same time hobbling itself. It’s yet to open accession negotiations on topics such as the justice system and human rights, and so is effectively denying itself the ability to force the Turkish government to change its approach. “There is no pressure whatsoever [from the EU], just the opposite,” says Tiryaki. “The chapters being frozen include the chapters on human rights, the judiciary and justice, and education and culture. So even if Turkey is perfectly fulfilling the criteria which are envisaged in these chapters, it would have no repercussions whatsoever on the EU accession process. I don’t understand what role the EU is trying to play here. On the one hand the EU is criticising Turkey, while it is stripping itself of the legitimate tools to be able to change it.”

The civil wars raging in Syria and iraq represent the most pressing need for cooperation between Turkey and the EU. For some Europeans, Turkey is proving to be an irresistible draw as a route to Syria. Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, reckons that “3,000 plus” Europeans have joined militant groups like so-called Islamic State (or ISIS), mainly from northern European countries such as Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK. Most of them go via Turkey, and each time grainy CCTV footage emerges of young European Muslims making their way through airport terminals and bus stations on their way to the Syrian border to join the ranks of militant groups, there are questions asked in European capitals about what Turkey is doing to stem this flow.

These are ties with Europe that Turkey would rather not have, but with an 800km-long border with Syria, it’s proving all but impossible to prevent. Turkish officials tend to get irritated by the criticism from Europe that they aren’t doing enough. Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and others have pointed out that Turkey has placed several thousands of people on a noentry list. Some in Europe are willing to recognise that there’s a limit to what Turkey can achieve in this area. “We are facing joint security constraints, so there’s something in common that we have to develop. The current period is a period of very rough seas and we’re all in the same boat, so there’s no jumping off. We have to make progress pragmatically where we can,” says Pierini. “ISIS has only one gateway to the world, which is Turkey. It’s an immensely complex border, very difficult to control. That is now a homeland security threat to Europe as well as to Turkey.”

The war in Syria has important political and economic consequences for Turkey. More than 1.6 million Syrians are thought to be now living in Turkey, causing social tensions in border areas particularly. Turkey has had to tread a careful line and, while it has loudly condemned President Bashir al Assad, it’s not yet done much to actively unseat him. It’s also steered clear of involvement in the bombing raids on Islamic State positions carried out by the US and some Middle Eastern countries or NATO allies. Ankara also remains nervous about what the growing autonomy of Kurds in Syria and Iraq might mean for its own large Kurdish population.

While Syria is perhaps the greatest regional foreign policy challenge facing Turkey, it’s far from the only one. Iraq is also in flames and relations with Armenia and Israel remain dire. Ankara’s relationships with Egypt and its allies in the Gulf are also strained as a result of Erdogan’s forceful support for the ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. In recent months, Erdoğan has tried to mend relations with the Gulf states, making two trips to Saudi Arabia this year already, but it will take time to fully repair the damage.

There was a time during the peak of the Arab Spring when Turkey’s mix of relatively secular politics and a Muslim majority population was seen as a model its Arab neighbour states could follow–this has clearly passed. The policy of “zero problems with our neighbours” which the country had pursued previously has gone too. But this troubled diplomatic landscape could yet indirectly lead to an improvement in relations between Turkey and Europe.

Turkish government ministers used to make a point of how Turkey was increasingly looking east to boost trade and reduce its reliance on Europe. Now it may be that, having turned east, Turkey could turn back to Europe in search of a more prosperous and stable future. That certainly seemed to be the hope of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, when she was speaking in London in February. “I believe that Turkey, now more than ever, needs a European perspective. Its leadership needs to be encouraged; I don’t see any other point of reference for Turkey in the region at the moment,” she told an audience at the Chatham House think-tank. “If you think that three [or] four years ago it was about zero problems with neighbours and being the model for the Arab countries, now the situation is rather different. So I think that Turkey has a chance to, let’s say, revive its European ambitions. I think there is a need to bridge the gap between the choices of the leadership and the feelings of the people.”

Some analysts in Turkey echo that view. “It is invariably in the interest of Turkey, in my opinion, to cultivate closer relations with the EU and European states to address the challenges in its vicinity,” says Ersoy. “It would be better for Turkey if these benefits are emphasised by Turkish policymakers more frequently.” It is also worth noting how much of Turkey’s economic rise over the past few years is a result of its closeness to Europe. “Much of Turkey’s success has more to do with a favourable constellation of circumstances than Erdoğan’s Midas touch,” wrote Altinay in his recent paper. “Turkey refinanced its high public debt of 2002 with a much lower interest rate—made possible through the global liquidity glut—and increased its creditworthiness because of its EU membership prospects. Without the fiscal space made possible by these two developments, the healthcare expansion, social policies and infrastructure upgrades would have been impossible.”

Whether Erdoğan’s willing or able to acknowledge this remains open to question. His weakness for surrounding himself with the trappings of power—not least in the form of a grandiose new presidential palace in Ankara—suggests he doesn’t easily accept that credit ought to be shared. Erdoğan also likes to cloak himself in the history of his country. The next few years will offer plenty of opportunity for him to do so with a series of important anniversaries. In 2023 the country will mark the centenary of the founding of the modern Turkish state. Before then, there will be the centenary of the start of the national liberation movement in May 1919. This April also held an important anniversary, with the 24th of the month marking 100 years since the start of the Battle of Çanakkale, better known as the Battle of Gallipoli. The eight-month long fight on a site some 250km southwest of modern-day Istanbul was the scene of heavy losses for the Ottoman army, but it was also a significant defeat for the UK, France and their allies. In Turkey it’s seen as one of the final victories of the Ottoman Empire, and a moment of pride worth remembering.

Erdoğan was on typically assertive form when talking about the event in late March. “The chain of losses and defeats, which had been continuing since 1800s, was shattered in Çanakkale. A new era began there. I believe their sacrifices were not in vain, not a single drop of their blood was sacrificed in vain,” he said. “Those who were defeated in Çanakkale despite their magnificent warships, modern weapons and multinational army, have not given up on their goals. That’s why we must preserve the spirit, faith and resolution of Çanakkale.”

Erdoğan’s willingness to promote notions of us versus them does not bode well for Turkish entry to Europe any time soon—no matter how much the Turkish people might be in favour of it. While Erdoğan’s divisive rhetoric certainly isn’t helpful, young citizens like Çağatay Özdemir acknowledge that the issue is not simply in the hands of Turkey: Attitudes in the rest of Europe will also need to change if Turkish EU membership is ever to become a reality. “It would be possible to join if other European countries accept that Turkey is a European country but we are facing the problem that France, Germany, Greece—they don’t think we are,” he says.

With the souring of the relationship between Turkey and the EU, Özdemir and friends of his generation are now facing up to a future with adjusted expectations, as they watch the hope of EU integration fade slowly into the distance, “When I was 18 or 19, I thought we were going to be a member of the EU, but nowadays me and most of my friends are thinking it’s not going to be possible,” he says. “We were on the road to the EU, but now I think we’re going backwards.”