May 28 2018

'What happens in Turkey is a disaster, the EU’s policy is shameful' - Steven Blockmans

Steven Blockmans, a top expert on Turkey in terms of judicial and political reform, has characterized the state of the rule of law in Turkey as a 'disaster' and the current EU policy vis-à-vis Turkey as ‘shameful’. 

Blockmans, currently the head of EU Foreign Policy of CEPS in Brussels, is one of the senior and most insightful figures who monitor closely the developments in Turkey. 

In an exclusive interview with Ahval, Blockmans said the elections of June 24 will be crucial, especially if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins and the constitutional amendments enter into force.  In that case, he argues, the EU would have no other option but to get tougher with Turkey. 

Ahval met with Blockmans in Brussels for this interview.

Some call the EU’s policy on Turkey nothing but appeasement...

It is a good label to go by. I feel ashamed for European politicians in this respect. I still believe in the values which underpin the community of law of the European Union. The EU has its own problems but it is obliged to respect its constitutional traditions and to promote its values in its neighborhood policies. In a world which is increasingly in disarray, we have already seen, in policy documents of the EU, a creeping realist, hard-nosed security-driven approach which also defines to a large extent relations with Turkey at the moment. 

Why is it shameful?

It is shameful because it belies the EU’s own constitutional values and because it undermines the Union’s enlargement policy. Despite the bad grades Turkey got in this year’s report on its preparedness for accession to the EU, the European Commission has not drawn any conclusions from that, possibly out of fear of upsetting a ‘strategic partner’. Brussels has thus created a bad precedent and is eroding the leverage it has over other candidate countries, especially in the Western Balkans. 

Why does the EU appease Turkey?

Cynically, the EU is appeasing Erdoğan because it can rely on the police state he has created to control the borders, to keep the refugees at bay and apprehend any foreign fighters attempting to get back through Turkey. 

But the union’s attitude is not unique to Turkey. If you look at Egypt, there is a similar regime, a bit more advanced than Turkey in terms of oppressing dissent. The EU is concerned that if the regime of President Sisi implodes there will be another, even bigger refugee crisis. To prevent his from happening, the EU is doing dubious deals with autocrats. 

What is the perception about President Erdoğan’s in Brussels right now? 

It is very negative. But hardly any official would speak publicly about this. I am astounded with many think-tankers as well who are not vocal enough.

These people either get harassed or trolled by the Embassy with ‘nice’ letters. (He shows the letter he has received from the Turkish Ambassador to the EU). I took it as a badge of honor and framed it. 

For the EU, Turkey is now a sideshow. With all the attention on Trump, Turkey gets away with a lot. Also, as a result of fragmentation on internal matters, the EU’s foreign policy is increasingly undermined by the disunity among member states.

Do policy-makers see Turkey still as a candidate country or do they just pretend?

They pretend. The idea that one day Turkey could be a member of the EU is certainly gone among the majority of European citizens. Yet you have a policy elite which thinks that Turkey belongs to the EU for strategic reasons and that one should therefore weather the autocratic storm which rages across the country. I hope that this is a temporary view which will change when the constitutional amendments enter into force. We should know soon enough whether or not top policy-makers across Europe are divorced from reality. The accession process is defunct and should be terminated. Other policies, with the refugees, Syria etc., are ongoing. 

You talk as if June 24 elections will be a turning point.

In either way, June 24 will be a turning point. In case the Erdoğan-led coalition wins, we know what will happen: the codification of autocracy. A consolidation of power around the position of the President will blur the normal separation of powers. In case of an electoral upset, there will be a power contestation between the President and a new alliance determined to weaken him. Then we will be in very troubled waters with Turkey. 

Do you think the German Chancellor could change her position on Turkey?

It depends very much on the result of the elections in June. If Erdoğan wins and all these constitutional reforms that were accepted by the referendum last year come into effect, then it will be inescapable for member states to adopt a tougher position.

Germans do always have in the back of their mind the refugee issue. However, with the Balkan route closed and Erdoğan’s change of policy on the Southern border, there is less fear in the German political mind of being held hostage again. For several reasons, I think that if the constitutional amendments are put into effect as a result of the elections in June, thus consolidating the already autocratic regime of Erdoğan, Merkel would have a freer hand to play a stronger card. 

It seems that the Turkish government’s narrative on what happened on the night of July 15, 2016 is not entirely 'bought' by the EU...

Things have not changed much since the ‘failed coup’. There is a lot of apprehension about the government’s narrative as to what happened on the night of July the 15th. This story has been doctored along the way. This is clear for everyone to see. This in itself creates disbelief. Even if people want to give the benefit of the doubt to Erdoğan and the conspiracy theories around the attempt to depose him, there remain so many unanswered questions on how events unfolded. The over-rich attempts or should I rather say over-kill by AKP and Erdoğan in trying to convince everybody discredits their line of thinking in the eyes of many Europeans. 

The reaction to the failed coup has of course been absolutely disproportional i.e. closing down hundreds of media outlets, locking up so many dissidents and dismissing hundreds of thousands of public servants. But there is so much pretence on the EU side, they are willing to close one eye to all of this because there seems to be a grain of truth in the government’s narrative. 

What about the legal applicability of the term ‘FETÖ’?

I do not use that word. Legally, nobody is guilty until proven by an impartial and independent judge. Unfortunately, the latter does not seem possible in today’s Turkey. 

As an expert of law, you did a lot of work for Turkish judges in Turkey. What do you think about the state of the Turkish judiciary right now? 

Many of the previously reformed structures have been dismantled. From a judicial point of view, what is happening in Turkey is a disaster. If the constitutional amendments enter into force, the situation will only get worse.