Cloud cuckoo land?

As I have earlier mentioned in Ahval, the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell is a quixotic figure, determined to do battle with the giants that threaten European security, Russia and Turkey.

Borrell concluded his end-of-the-year blog, “The way ahead after a difficult 2020 for EU-Turkey relations”, on a wistful note, reminiscent of John Lennon: “Some may think that I am a dreamer.” But some may judge him harshly and compare him with Neville Chamberlain, who came back from Munich in September 1938, waving a piece of paper, and proclaimed “peace for our time”.

Given the conclusions of the recent EU summit, at least as far as Turkey is concerned, there is no reason to be sanguine. The 15-page Borrell report on the state of play in Turkey-EU relations was three days later neatly compartmentalised in the European Council’s 11-point statement on the Eastern Mediterranean, which was sandwiched between COVID-19, European recovery and two sentences on Russia.

The upshot was that “the European Union is ready to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner in a number of areas of common interest”, including an enhancement of the Customs Union, public health, climate, counter terrorism and regional issues. A prominent issue was the continuation of financing for Syrian refugees in Turkey to keep the wolf from the European door.

Like Cinderella at the feast, major setbacks in human rights were given a cursory mention, to be dealt with by “dialogue” as an integral part of the EU-Turkey relationship. Prior to the EU summit, a comprehensive appeal was made to Borrell and EU foreign ministers by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to put human rights at the centre of EU-Turkey relations. A similar appeal was made by three MEPs and 29 organisations.

EU president Charles Michel and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have just concluded a visit to Turkey to promote the EU’s positive agenda. Ahead of their visit, they received an open letter from 20 human rights groups, calling on them to prioritise the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights as part of this agenda.

At their meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the issues raised by the European Council’s statement were reiterated and von der Leyen expressed her concern about Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention to protect women against violence. This was strangely emphasised by the fact that the EU Commission’s president was literally left standing at the meeting’s start.

The U.S. State Department has in an 84-page report on human rights in Turkey catalogued arbitrary killings, suspicious deaths of persons in custody, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest and continued detention of tens of thousands of persons for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech.

The report was dismissed by Erdoğan’s head of communications, Fahrettin Altun, who claimed that Turkey under the 19-year leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had experienced “a silent revolution” in human rights reform. He also pointed out that the president was the only leader in recent years to raise his voice against human rights violations in the region and around the world.

But it seems that the leadership of the EU, which has long claimed to be a value-based community, has lost touch with or ignored the reality of developments in Turkey. For example, the Union’s elected representatives in the European Parliament have stressed that an update of Turkey’s Customs Union should be based on strong conditionality related to human rights and fundamental freedoms.  

A March resolution on the Syrian conflict called on Turkey to withdraw its troops from northern Syria, which it occupies in violation of international law. It also expresses concern that Turkey’s ongoing displacements could amount to ethnic cleansing against the Syrian Kurdish population and condemns Turkey’s use of Syrian mercenaries in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

In its December conclusions, the European Council agreed to coordinate on matters relating to Turkey and the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean with the United States, which under the Biden administration could provide a more robust response.    

Last year in a declaration of U.S. foreign policy, Biden warned that democracy today is under more pressure than at any time since the 1930s, facing the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism and illiberalism. In his view, the U.S. should play the leading role to mobilise collective action on global threats, which include fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism and advancing human rights.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, Biden sent a clear message: “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back.”, which could hopefully reenergise the EU’s soggy response to the threat from Turkey.

Turkey is itself in a state of turmoil. Essentially, the country is in a state of conflict between two value systems, that of the West, imposed by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and that of Islam, imposed by its present leader, Erdoğan. As Samuel Huntington noted in “The Clash of Civilizations?”, the most obvious and prototypical torn country is Turkey.

A keynote speech given by Erdoğan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın at the Istanbul Forum in October 2012 on a new geopolitical framework is a rejection of Western secular and democratic values. A recent study, “The Erdogan Revolution in the Turkish Curriculum Textbooks”, reinforces how this ideology is imposed on the Turkish educational system.

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse and waning political support, the AKP government is on the ropes. The question is whether the EU’s positive agenda will provide life support or pave the way for genuine reform.    

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.