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Perspectives: Erdogan “the Magnificent” and His EU Streetcar     Print Email
By Ali H. Aslan, Turkish Journalist based in Washington, DC and former Washington Correspondent for Zaman

aliaslanAs mayor of Istanbul in 1996, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "Democracy is like a streetcar. We ride it as long as we can, and then get off.” Apparently, twenty years later, Turkey’s President stays true to his word. Having skillfully used democratic mechanisms to come close to his final destination, which is absolute power, he now appears ready to get off the streetcar, as evidenced by Turkey’s autocratic trajectory, especially in the last few years.

Like democracy, the EU membership process and relations with Europe have served as a handy vehicle for Erdogan.

As Prime Minister, Erdogan was a proponent of integration with Europe, and under his leadership, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) implemented substantive economic and political reforms which resulted in the launching of official membership negotiations with the EU in 2005. Back then, Erdogan desperately needed European support to alleviate the secularist establishment’s worries about his inherently Islamist ideology and to safeguard against a possible military coup. Thanks to reforms weakening the influence of the military-led old establishment and his unabashed populism, Erdogan secured his political path. He then established a one-man-one-party regime, gradually eradicating checks and balances, as executive, legislative and judicial branches as well as the media are heavily controlled or suppressed.

Yet, Erdogan still needs Europe as an economic interlocutor. Europe is the largest Foreign Direct Investment source for Turkey and a crucial export destination. But recently, the EU’s role as a democratic facilitator in Turkey has been weakened. Part of the blame goes to Brussels and the EU’s Member States, which lost considerable leverage by not reciprocating on past reforms with tangible membership prospects. As for Erdogan, he probably was never truly enthusiastic about eventual integration with Europe, which contradicts his ultimate vision for Turkey: a dynamic leader of the Islamic world competing with the West, rather than a restrained and subordinated Muslim partner inside an aging European club.

According to Omer Taspinar, a scholar from the National War College and Brookings Institution, Erdogan's current approach to the EU is based on an “opportunistic exploitation” of the refugee crisis emanating from Syria. Countries like Germany and Greece are in “desperate need” of Turkey's proven ability to stem the refugee flow to Europe. Erdogan is determined to extract “significant economic and political concessions” in return. “We have to analyze Ankara's expectations on issues ranging from visa liberalization to financial aid in this broader context,” Taspinar argues.

“Europe's despair and willingness to pay ransom is emboldening Erdogan's autocratic impulses and moving the political dynamics in Turkey from bad to worse,” observes Taspinar. Witness the recent ousting of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a relatively moderate and EU-friendly player from the ruling JDP. While Davutoglu had a mixed record in his 21 months tenure as Prime Minister and served Erdogan’s authoritarian agenda in many aspects, at the same time he tried to keep EU prospects alive and helped secure the refugee deal, which took effect on March 20.

In late April, members of JDP’s highest decision-making body, most of whom were handpicked by Erdogan, stripped Davutoglu of the authority to appoint regional party executives. Shortly after, an anonymous pro-Erdogan blog called ‘pelikandosyasi’ (Pelican Brief) surfaced with intimate details about why Erdogan lost trust with Davutoglu. Among the cited “wrongdoings” were instances of Davutoglu’s positive engagement with Europe. The posting, which was never refuted by the presidential palace, revealed how Erdogan got furious when Davutoglu tried to garner personal credit from the visa deal with the Europeans. Davutoglu was also criticized for not challenging the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, when he said the EU did not make the deal with Erdogan but that the EU interlocutor was Davutoglu. It wasn’t long after that posting Davutoglu submitted his resignation to Erdogan as leader of JDP and Prime Minister.

Davutoglu was not the first prominent pro-EU figure at JDP who has been out-maneuvered by Erdogan. Former President Abdullah Gul, a political heavyweight and co-founder of JDP, had a similar fate. President Gul has long contributed to Turkey’s accession efforts with Europe, except when he ratified several anti-democratic laws designed by Erdogan to cover-up a 2013 corruption scandal and suppress critics. After Erdogan was elected President in August 2014, Gul wanted to run for the vacant leadership chair at JDP. However, Erdogan made sure the party convention was scheduled on a date while the former President was still in office, and therefore, technically ineligible.

Binali Yildirim, the replacement for Prime Minister Davutoglu, is a favorite of Erdogan’s. One of the founding members of the Justice and Development Party, which has governed Turkey since 2002, he has worked closely with the President since the 1990s and is widely considered a staunch loyalist. Hence, it is unlikely he would challenge Erdogan’s policy on Europe or any other topic.

The controversial migration agreement between the EU and Turkey, which seeks to stem the flow of refugees from the Turkish coast to Greece, includes upping EU refugee aid to Turkey (€ 6 million), applying a one to one admission policy for Syrian refugees, and granting visa-free travel to Turkish citizens by the end of June. That deadline is not expected to be met because of fundamental disagreements over Turkish anti-terrorism laws, EU officials said this week, according to Reuters.

In response to growing pressure from European quarters who seek change in Turkey’s notorious anti-terror laws, which is among 72 preconditions for visa-free-travel, Erdogan has recently threatened to part ways and call the refugee deal off. Ankara refuses to compromise on anti-terror laws, which they present as an essential element of Turkey’s fight with PKK militants and terrorists. The laws are seen as problematic mainly because they have been “widely employed to investigate and prosecute critics of the government,” according to a 2016 Freedom House report on Turkey. The latest U.S. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices points out that, as of November 2015, Turkish authorities had arrested an estimated 30 journalists, most charged under anti-terror laws or for alleged association with an illegal organization. To the shock of the international community, Turkey’s highest circulation newspaper Zaman and sister news organizations were violently seized two months ago by the government under anti-terrorism pretext.

Erdogan’s staunch refusal to consider changes to his government’s harsh anti-terrorist measures is getting serious blowback from European quarters. Even German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has expended a lot of political capital in her bid to court Ankara, cast doubt on the viability of the visa-liberalization agreement while in Istanbul for the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit. The European Parliament won’t even begin working on the agreement until all the 72 criteria are met by Turkey.

Still, support for EU membership in Turkey still remains “positive,” a 2015 survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States has concluded. For 44 percent of the participants, EU membership is a “good thing,” as opposed to 23 percent who view it as a “bad thing.” Expectations both in Turkey and Europe, on the other hand, are low about the actual accession. Over the weekend British Prime Minister David Cameron joked Turkey is on course to join the EU in the year 3000 on its current rate of progress.

In the light of all these factors, the current partnership between the European Union and Turkey is far from being strategic and values-based; it looks more and more transactional. As long as the Syrian conflict and perceived European dependency on Ankara persists, Erdogan will continue to exploit the refugee crisis and ISIL situation to sustain his regime. Most likely, he will not hesitate from getting off the streetcar whenever he deems necessary. The pro-government media, which dominates the news in Turkey due to a massive crackdown on independent journalism, would happily present such a move as a historic slap in the face of Europe from a neo-Ottoman Sultan: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Perspectives is a periodic feature of European Affairs, reflecting the opinion of members of The European Institute on timely issues.