Is it time to for the EU to get tough on Turkey?

The die is cast. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hell bent on retaking Istanbul from the opposition. The Supreme Election Council (YSK) has bent the knee, to borrow a phrase from Game of Thrones, and ordered a rerun of the election for Istanbul mayor on June 23. Opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu is preparing to fight again for the position he was declared to have won and his Republican People’s Party is calling on YSK to void the entire election so that it also contests the AKP-dominated Istanbul municipal council. The opposition is upping the ante, rather than calling for a boycott of the vote.  

As Turkey is gearing up for more drama, is the outside world, the European Union first and foremost, going to be a bystander or weigh in more robustly?  

To be sure, there has been no shortage of criticism with regard to the YSK’s decision to cancel İmamoğlu’s victory in the mayoral race. The European Parliament stated the decision would end the credibility of Turkish elections. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini took a somewhat softer line. “Ensuring a free, fair and transparent election process is essential to any democracy and is at the heart of the European Union’s relations with Turkey.” At the same time, she and Johannes Hahn, the enlargement commissioner, demanded international monitors be allowed to observe the new poll. To her credit, Mogherini spared no criticism of the YSK’s decision not to allow elected mayors and city councillors in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeastern provinces to take office.

The question is how much such words matter. They have next to no impact on Erdoğan’s cost benefit calculus. For him, Istanbul is too big a prize to let go. Jittery international financial markets punishing the Turkish lira have not been a strong deterrent, why should the pronouncements of Brussels officials be heeded? Perversely but also expectedly, foreign criticism plays into his hands. It allows him to point an accusing finger at the West for meddling in the country’s affairs, and whip up the base. The higher the EU pitch, the more escalatory the palace rhetoric will become.

Erdoğan is fully justified in thinking that there is more bark than bite when it comes to the EU’s criticism of Turkey. The remarkable turnaround in 2018 – from head-on confrontation with Germany and the Netherlands in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections, to (a sort of) normalisation thereafter – sets a precedent. In addition, directing fire at the likes of Mogherini, Hahn or indeed the members of the European Parliament carries no risk. They are all on their way out following the European elections later this month and the end of the European Commission’s term at the end of 2019. Brussels office holders are a soft target.

If the EU wants to make a difference it must be prepared to act with vigour and purpose. The European Parliament already passed a resolution in mid-March to suspend the stalled accession talks with Turkey. However, such a decision is in the hands of the member states that form the EU Council. In case of blatant irregularities on June 23, the council may be forced to take a stance and even reach a qualified majority to call off negotiations.

Such a path spells trouble. Rather than tipping the scales inside Turkey it will only strengthen Erdoğan’s narrative of foreign enemies plotting against the country. Besides, the impact will be mostly symbolic as most business between the EU and Ankara is done parallel to the negotiations anyhow. Case in point: the 2016 refugee deal that was renewed last summer. Even if membership negotiations are formally terminated, business will go on as usual.

It is in the EU’s interest to have Erdoğan walking away from the talks rather than the other way around. Then, the onus for squandering Turkey’s integration into Europe will be on him.  Thus far he has avoided such a scenario, fully aware of the costs it entails. But the combative president could be left with no other choice if the EU ramps up its criticism in the months ahead. Member states could vote unanimously to freeze more negotiation chapters or cut some or all of the financial assistance available to Turkey as a candidate state. If accession talks are destined to face their inevitable demise let it be death by a thousand cuts.

Despite Turkey’s authoritarian drift, a full rupture with the EU will not ensue. Economic and strategic interests will continue to bind the two parties together. The membership negotiations, on the other hand, have run their course. But let us see who blinks first: Brussels or Erdoğan.

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