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EU leaders back down from challenging Erdogan

As efforts towards EU membership drag on for decades, EU members cite human rights issues and Cyprus dispute hampering progress

In October 2005, just under forty years since it first signed an Association Agreement aimed at eventual EU membership, Turkey and the European Union began formal negotiations aimed at full membership. Over the years, between 1963 and 2005, the EU repeatedly guaranteed that Turkey was eligible for membership, but nearly a decade later, negotiations drag on with no end in sight, blocked ostensibly because of Turkey’s dispute with Cyprus, a country which applied for membership of the EU decades after Turkey but easily leapfrogged it in the queue for membership.

It is a small wonder then that many Turks this week took to heart taunts against the EU by Russian Prime Minister, Dimitry Medvedev, who declared that the relationship was “dating without a marriage”: “It is sufficient to have a look at Turkey - this country signed the association agreement 51 years ago and it’s still not a European Union member.”  Hopes of ever joining are now at a very low ebb in Turkey, for the reaction to the perceived rebuff from Europe since 2005 has been to concentrate its foreign policy on the Middle East.

This week, Turkish-EU relations took a further severe jolt when there was initially an angry reaction in Brussels to the arrest of 32 persons, mostly from the media, on so far unspecified charges of trying to overthrow the government. The High Commissioner for External Affairs, Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, reacted within hours, saying that the arrests were “incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy”.

Their formal statement, which came only a week after they had visited Turkey, hoping to boost EU cooperation in areas such as assistance to Syrian refugees, was notable as the first public criticism from the EU of human rights in Turkey since the  suppression of the Gezi Park protests with teargas and rubber bullets during the summer of 2013.

Their words produced an instant response within hours from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president. He said that the EU should mind its own business and, more surprisingly, declared that Turkey would not bow to possible threats to exclude it from membership. The remarks alarmed the money markets and the Turkish Lira has fallen steadily against the US dollar during the last three days to an all-time low.

Though Erdogan has said in the past that he might prefer membership of the Russian and Chinese led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to the EU, this was the first time he has shown his anger in public at Brussels. Turkey may not be a full member of the EU, but it has had a customs union with it since 1996 which economists regard as one of the main reasons for its economic prosperity in the last decade and a half. Any interruption to the trading relationship or setback to efforts to update it to meet changing world market conditions, could be painful.

Furthermore, though some Turks regard a closer partnership with Russia as a possible alternative to the EU, the Russian economy is currently in dire straits as a result of international sanctions against it. Nonetheless, to some Turkish observers, it looks as if Erdogan has “shot himself in the foot”.

But Erdogan’s position is stronger than it looks and he knows it, which is why over the last year-and-a-half he has been able to crack down on domestic opponents without having to worry about adverse reactions from western leaders.

Indeed, to a surprising extent, he can still count on their active support, despite considerable behind the scenes annoyance. When British Prime Minister, David Cameron visited Ankara last week  not only did he declare in advance that he strongly supported Turkish EU membership, but he apparently also refrained from making any criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record in his private meetings as well as his public statements. With little interest in Turkey’s internal affairs among European public opinion, it seems unlikely that any other major European government would go further, indeed some - for example the last Swedish government - were staunch supporters of Ankara.

Why should this be? There are two main reasons. First, Turkey continues to be a key regional player in the Balkans, Black Sea, and Middle East. Though it is regarded as a sluggish ally when it comes to fighting IS, the US and Britain still both strongly back its wish to overthrow the Assad government in Syria.

Second, as a corollary of this, unlike Cameron, though some EU leaders do not want Turkey as an EU candidate state, they do want it as a close proximity partner. They know that breaking off negotiations would have far-reaching, perhaps incalculable, strategic and economic consequences. At the very least, it could trigger a destabilising crash on Turkish markets followed by much greater political conflicts.

Turkey’s internal disputes so far, at least have not spilt over into EU, despite the presence of six million immigrants of Turkish background there. As far as opponents of Turkish accession are concerned, current events there have the convenient effect of pushing Turkey’s candidacy ever further onto the horizon.

So, despite the strong words of Mogherini and Hahn, governments across the EU currently look set not to respond angrily to Erdogan’s challenges, but to go on expressing disapproval of human-rights shortcomings without threatening to do anything. Their remedy, first proposed in the EU 2014 Annual Progress Report on Turkey last October, is for “more Europe” i.e. proposing more cooperation and convergence between Turkey and the EU as a cure even though in practice this is most unlikely to happen. It is hard to see how this approach differs from tacitly accepting the situation, even though it is a new one that has arisen during the accession process when Turkey was supposedly being monitored closely.

On Tuesday night, the General Affairs Council of the EU issued a series of recommendations to candidate countries, headed by a long section on Turkey. This emphasises the importance of Turkey’s importance to the EU and its regional role, but after referring to events which it considers unacceptable, the EU “urges Turkey to work on reforms which should provide for adequate checks and balances fully guaranteeing freedom, including freedom of thought.” The implication seems to be that no stronger reaction is contemplated. This may not satisfy radical critics in the European Parliament but at present it is probably as far as EU leaders will go.

- David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi meet at Presidential Palace of Turkey in Ankara, Turkey on 11 December (AFP)