A Positive Agenda with Turkey: At What Price?
Turkey is keen to boast a “positive agenda” with Europe. Blindly subscribing to its charm offensive could constitute a mishap and an abdication of European values and interests.
The year 2023 is a double-culmination in the Turkish president’s political life: the presidential and legislative elections he cannot afford to lose and the Republic’s centennial celebrations he cannot miss.
At this point, this trajectory is hampered by a deep political, economic and social crisis. The 2018 alliance between the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP, in power since November 2002) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is cracking at the seams. In addition, the ultra-centralised presidential model installed in 2017 is no more accepted by a majority of citizens, as the 2019 municipal elections and recent polls show.
Annoyed, the Turkish leadership is hardening its stance day by day: Purges, harassment of opposition parties, control over the press and social media, crushing of civil society, politicisation of the judiciary… Some even envisage banning the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Externally, Turkey has deployed a heavily militarised foreign policy in the past few years, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Azerbaijan, and eastern Mediterranean. This is the “New Turkey” show of power but also, in part, a desire to resolve long-standing litigations such as eradicating the rear bases of the Kurdish insurgents Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), making the division of the island of Cyprus a permanent feature, and modifying maritime boundaries with Greece.
In parallel, a vast military build-up program launched in the year 2000 is now becoming a reality, and is deeply transforming the country’s military posture: Armed drones, sea-to-sea missiles, helicopter carriers, frigates, and submarines are now being lined up or under construction. More fundamentally, Turkey has deployed Russian S-400 missile defence systems. The S-400 is known to be entirely incompatible with NATO’s defensive architecture, thus hitting the Atlantic alliance with a major blow and introducing doubt about Ankara’s position in case of tensions between Moscow and the West.
Shaken by Joe Biden’s victory, the Turkish leadership has suddenly reversed its political narrative since November 2020. Forget the call to French voters to ‘get rid as soon as possible’ of their president and the ‘Nazi’ designation for German politicians, here come announcements of deep reforms, a pro-European strategic vision, Atlanticist proclamations, and strenuous efforts to get a personal relationship going with the new U.S. president.
Not only this inverted narrative is not too credible, but it is akin to political deceit. Any political and judicial reform worth its salt would go against the grain of the autocratic system that has been patiently building up since 2017 and is consolidated on a daily basis. Who in the West could believe this narrative?
Moreover, a positive agenda with Europe would exclude human rights and rule of law, as explicitly stated in a Foreign Ministry communiqué of February 4. Ankara also says that S-400s will remain in place. There are many dead-ends.
Europe certainly has to factor in Turkey’s fundamentals: The country is vast, economically and militarily powerful, and many EU member countries have economic and financial interests there.
But Europe should also factor in a fundamental game-changer: Today, Turkey, as shaped by the 2017 constitutional amendment and by the AKP-MHP alliance, is no longer part of the “Western team”, whether by its human rights violations or by its military choices. No amount of “positive agenda” will reverse these choices, which emanate from the leaders’ choices and, up until now, from the voters. This reality should forbid any naiveté until 2023 and calls for a complete rethink of the EU’s relationship with Ankara, because there is no opportunity to durably assuage relations with the current leadership.
Until the March 25-26 European Council meeting, Ankara will work on five main aspects: Get Ursula Von der Leyen and Charles Michel to visit Turkey; obtain a massive aid package for Syrian refugees on its soil; find support for its talks with Greece on maritime boundaries; avoid sanctions and pressure on rule of law; and get the Turkish president invited to a European Council meeting.
Some of Ankara’s pressing demands are legitimate and should result in ad hoc agreements as soon as possible: Maritime boundaries, Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the Customs Union.
Other demands are intimately linked to the political survival of a regime under duress, and the EU is called upon to comfort it through silence and summitry. In other words, Europe is invited to “ratify” Turkey’s autocratic model and remain muted on its multiple attacks against European interests.
Should Turkish expansionism in the Mediterranean and North Africa be deliberately ignored? Should multilateral solutions to conflicts in Cyprus, Libya and Syria be abandoned? Should Turkey’s rejection of the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) judgments on high-profile cases like those of Selahattin Demirtaş, Osman Kavala and many others be accepted, despite being legally binding for Turkey? Should EU governments’ support to Turkey’s military build-up be continued in the absence of any visibility on its future use? Finally, should the EU abdicate its values and interests?
In the coming weeks, democratic forces in Europe and Turkey would hope to count in the European leaders’ clear-headedness.
(This op-ed was initially published in French by the French daily La Croix on February 10.)