Ali Yurttagül
May 11 2018

How to interpret Erdoğan’s recent 'pledges' on the EU?

Abdülkadir Selvi is not an ordinary journalist and columnist in Turkey. If you want to interpret the political objectives of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan correctly and to feel the pulse in Ankara, you should check Selvi’s messages.

After Erdoğan announced his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) manifesto for the June 24 election this week, Selvi said the emphasis the president put on the European Union (EU) was very important.

He noted that what was more important was not the pledge to become a full member of the EU, but the stress on the EU values.

‘’Our new administrative system approved by the people’s vote will make legislation more credible, execution more strong, and the judiciary more independent. With full separation of powers, the parliament will focus on legislation and the oversight of the government, the government on effective enforcement, and the judiciary on securing independent and impartial justice’’ said Erdoğan when announcing his manifesto.

According to Selvi, those words were reflecting his commitment to EU values.

When you read his comments, you cannot help but think that Selvi knows very well what has been crushed by Erdoğan’s rule. The gap between Erdoğan’s words and the reality has never been as wide as it has been in the last two years.

Selvi of course ignores this fact. 

Corruption, poverty and restrictions of freedoms have always been issues in Turkey. The judiciary has never been fully independent and impartial. Yet, even in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, the justice system was not damaged to the degree we witness today. The most basic constitutional rights such as the right of property, the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press have never been violated to this extent.

Military coups left deep scars in Turkey, but none of them destroyed the institutions in Turkey to this degree. Not only the judiciary, but also the executive and the legislative structure is in a miserable state. Parliament has even lost its most basic function of the oversight of the government.

Institutions like the Supreme Court and the Court of Accounts have become so useless that the concept of checks and balances has become meaningless.

The latest EU Commission country report on Turkey describes these problems in stark terms.

However, this is no surprise. Erdoğan is aware his regime of oppression does not comply with the values of the EU. But his emphasis on the EU is still interesting, despite the contradictions.

It is interesting, because it is not in fact related to the importance of the EU and its values, as Selvi wants us to think. One can undoubtedly argue that nobody who supports those values believes that the rule of law, the separation of powers and basic rights and freedoms will be revived by Erdoğan.

Therefore, who is the target of this message, if not Turkish society?

Can it be the EU?

Of course the target is the EU. Given the outlook of the AKP and its nationalist allies, one would have expected an anti-EU election manifesto. Erdoğan has embraced an anti-EU and anti-Western discourse in recent years, putting what he sees as the suffering of Muslims at the centre of his campaigns and accusing the West of hypocrisy and double standards, as well as supporting terrorism. Selvi’s interpretation is contradictory to this.

When you take Selvi’s words on the EU seriously and think about the softness of Erdoğan’s tone towards the EU, you begin to question the relation between that attitude and the two factors that forced Erdoğan to call snap elections.

The first is the worrying situation of Turkish economy. The lira has been melting against dollar and euro like snow in the sun. Erdoğan’s advisors might have whispered in his ear that an anti-EU, anti-Western campaign would hurt investment and the economy even further. This is highly likely.

But there is also a second factor.

Journalists with a good understanding of what is happening in the close circle of former president and former Erdoğan ally, Abdullah Gül, point to serious criticism of Erdoğan made behind closed doors by the former chief of the economy Ali Babacan. Gül and his team, they say, are continuing to work on the assumption that there will be new elections after June 24, just as in 2015, when Erdoğan called new elections in November after failing to win an outright majority polls in June.

Therefore, the fact that Gül announced he might be a candidate against Erdoğan under certain conditions becomes important. It is not hard to foresee what will be Gül’s political programme if he runs against Erdoğan.

And it seems like Erdoğan is trying to prevent that.

Even if Erdoğan wins, he will undoubtedly face a severe economic crisis. Since his failure will be apparent, he might be trying to avert possible harsh criticism from the EU.

How will the EU interpret this emphasis?

The attitude towards Erdoğan in Brussels, where I have worked almost 30 years, can be summed up in one line:

‘’He thinks we are fools...’’

Probably the harshest comments come from bureaucrats like me, who saw Erdoğan as a democrat and Turkey as a model for the Middle East until the 2010 referendum on changing the constitution.

The unresolved Kurdish issue, the lack of freedom of expression and press, the fact that the rule of law has been trampled on, the criticism of corruption now coming from even the most dedicated pro-government columnists, Erdoğan’s insistence on ruling the country under a state of emergency for nearly two years, the fact that esteemed democrats like Selahattin Demirtaş, Osman Kavala, Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak, and Ali Bulaç are in jail…

There is no point in making the list longer, these are enough to illustrate that Erdoğan has no more any credibility.

But if you ask me what the EU will do, if Erdoğan wins, I'd predict it will not do anything.

It will act as it has been since the November 2015 elections. Turkey is too important to burn bridges completely.

But I don’t think that Brussels will believe in Erdoğan’s emphasis on the EU and the rule of law. In summary, nothing will change. The EU will watch as the political and the economic crisis in Turkey gets deeper. European businesses will wait.

You do not have to be an expert on Turkey to see that the objectives of Erdoğan and EU values are contradictory.

If Erdoğan loses, Turkey will break the mould.

We will not only witness a quite extraordinary thing like a despot being toppled by elections, we will also see that Turkey is a source of inspiration for democracy, with its political parties, institutions, and voters managing to stand on their feet.

Such a process is impossible in Russia or Iran.

In Turkey?

Maybe, we will see...