Erdogan’s balancing act

Hany Ghoraba
Wednesday 20 Jun 2018

Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union has been made immeasurably more complicated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist and neo-Ottoman rhetoric

Unlike the British, who chose to exit the European Union willingly in 2016, the Turks have been dreaming of the day they could join the EU, allowing them to solidify their position as a major power in the Middle East and expand the political and economic horizons of the Turkish nation on the European continent.

Unfortunately, that dream that the nation has been striving for over past decades has now been impeded by the presence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm of the Turkish state.

In 2003, Turkish prime minister and now President Recep Tayyib Erdogan promised the Turkish nation that he would work on realising the dream of joining the EU as he stepped up the economic reforms needed to meet the standards set by the EU for membership.

Eighteen years later, Turkey may have attained a good economic condition for a few years, but now it is crumbling economically, socially and politically.

Nearly 15 years of Erdogan’s rule in Turkey has turned one of the most promising democracies in the Middle East into an autocracy through multiple constitutional referendums that have paved the way for Erdogan to turn himself from an elected prime minister to a dictatorial president with almost unlimited powers.

Over the past two years alone, Erdogan has managed to purge the opposition to his rule, eliminating dissidents through a purge that has included the judicial system, the police, the army and even educational institutions in Turkey.

He has used the failed coup of 2016 as a pretext for purging the opposition and has even threatened to reinstate the death penalty in Turkey, abolished in 2004 when the country was working to meet the admission requirements for the EU.

Erdogan heads an Islamist regime, and he has aimed to appease the masses in Turkey through a rhetoric that combines Islamism with restoring the glories of the former Ottoman Empire.

Europeans, who may remember a history of constant confrontation with that Empire, have not been pleased to hear Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman and Islamist rhetoric. The memories of the Ottoman Empire have not simply faded away, and they are still taught in European school curricula, like when, for example, the former Empire expanded into central Europe and was only stopped outside the gates of Vienna in 1683.

The Ottoman Empire then receded, but it was still often in conflict with the European powers until its fall in 1922.

Many Europeans do not wish to see a repeat of Turkish-Ottoman hegemony, thinking that tying their fate to the Turkish Republic carries the same perils that their ancestors ran in suffering the Ottomans.

Erdogan’s rhetoric and hostile stance towards Europe certainly does not help the argument that the successor state to the Ottoman Empire is in reality very different.

While opinion polls do not necessarily accurately reflect a given political situation, they are an indicator that cannot be ignored. Recent polls conducted in the European Union have shown that its citizens disapprove of Turkey joining the EU by huge margins.

For instance, the German centre-right party the European People’s Party (EPP) conducted a poll in 2017 that showed that three out of four European citizens opposed Turkey joining the EU.

Germany tops the list of European nations whose citizens oppose Turkey being a European Union member, followed by Holland, Denmark and Finland. Countries such as Austria have officially indicated their rejection of the idea of an expanded EU that would include Turkey.

Bizarrely, the aforementioned poll also indicated that countries such as Russia and Morocco faced smaller opposition by European citizens to their joining the EU than Turkey.

On the official level, the European Commission slammed Erdogan’s Turkey in April by saying that Turkey “continues to take huge strides away from the European Union, in particular in the areas of the rule of law and fundamental rights,” according to EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn.

Erdogan’s abysmal record on human rights in both Turkey and in neighbouring countries where Turkish armed forces are conducting illegal operations has become a deal-breaker for Turkey’s long-term plans to join the EU. This point of contention joins several others hindering Turkey’s chances of joining the EU in the future.

Such points are numerous and include the Turkish leader’s aggressive speeches against other European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and his threats to unleash Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Europe if the EU states do not meet the cost of their residence in Turkey.

Such stances, when coupled with Erdogan’s mix of Islamist and Ottoman rhetoric, have distanced Turkey from its European neighbours. These engaged in many feuds with the former Ottoman Empire in the past, and they are not keen for these to emerge again.

For decades, Turkey as a European partner state has been a buffer between the EU and areas of conflict in Iraq, Syria, Iran and the former Soviet states of Georgia and Armenia. The moment Turkey joins the EU, Europe’s borders will expand into these conflict zones and deep into the Middle East, representing new strategic, demographic and political challenges to the EU that it does not welcome.

To make matters worse, Turkey’s role in these conflicts has exacerbated their ferocity, such as in the case of Syria and Iraq and the turbulent history of Armenia. The EU has acknowledged the Armenian Genocide carried out by the former Ottoman Empire during the First World War, though this is still denied by Turkey today.

Such considerations have not made the Europeans more open to the idea of Turkey as a member of the EU, especially since Turkey is also engaged in feuds with two EU members, Greece and Cyprus, over the situation in Northern Cyprus.

The economic development of Turkey over recent decades has been admired by many, and this has led to strengthened ties with the EU. However, these ties have failed to change into anything other than partnership with the EU due to the presence of Erdogan.

Erdogan’s dictatorship, aggression, support for terrorism and hostility towards Turkey’s former partners and allies have created huge barriers to the ambitions of the Turkish nation to join the EU.

This was never going to be a simple matter, but it has now become immeasurably more complicated as a result of Erdogan’s paradoxical policies of appeasing his own supporters domestically as an Islamist and Neo-Ottoman leader and appeasing the EU by appearing as the kind of liberal leader needed to secure Turkey’s membership.

Thus far, Erdogan’s dictatorship in Turkey has tainted all his actions, and this has meant the withering of Turkey’s plans for EU membership.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Erdogan’s balancing act

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