A generation of Europeans—myself among them—were raised in the painful memory of two world wars and devoted a lifetime to building a peaceful European Union and strong links with its neighbors. This backdrop explains why casual evocations of “Nazis” and “gas chambers” by Turkey’s leaders for the sake of domestic political gain are beyond limits, and why such outrageous statements cannot be justified by any complaints that Turkey has against the EU. This is also why the continued dismantling of Turkey’s rule of law architecture has become a strategic issue for Europe and its own democratic setup.
Thankfully, at the next European Council summit on October 19 and 20, EU heads of state and government will have the chance for a sober discussion about their policy options on Turkey. This meeting is an opportunity to set aside the megaphone battles and respond to Ankara with a mix of firmness and composure.
To begin with, two irritants should be clarified among the EU’s 28 leaders. First, it must be acknowledged that the ongoing debate about the (supposedly) forthcoming “freeze of accession talks” with Turkey is feeding Ankara’s populist one-liners that only serve to undermine the EU’s image. Here’s one of them, recently quoted in the Turkish press: “Turkey firmly fulfilled (EU) requirements from the very beginning of its candidacy.” This statement bears no relationship with reality.
Truth should be spoken: by its own choices and actions, Turkey no longer sufficiently meets the EU’s political criteria for accession. For this reason, formally halting accession negotiations with Turkey is now supported by a few European member states. But the question of a negotiation freeze should not even be up for discussion since, by the rules of the game, the talks are redundant until Turkey respects the rule of law again. In the meantime, the EU should continue to abstain from working on opening new negotiation chapters as a matter of principle. There is no appetite in Europe—among citizens and governments alike—to offer EU membership to a country run by an authoritarian political system based on a one-man-rule constitution (imposed through a widely-contested referendum), where the media are muzzled, opposition politicians are jailed, and “terrorism” accusations can be used against virtually anyone.
Second, the European Council should counter Turkey’s threat to cancel the Syrian refugee agreement, which Ankara justifies making because of “unfulfilled EU promises.” How could Turkey forcefully deport Syrian refugees to Bulgaria or Greece and, at the same time, lead a worldwide solidarity campaign in favor of Rohingya Muslims, who are being chased out of Myanmar? Furthermore, events since the March 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal have shown that Turkey was perfectly able to control the human trafficking mafias on its territory. So, if departures to Greece were to suddenly surge, it would signal that controls have been relaxed. Let’s also not forget that Turkey’s specialized agencies are fully cooperating with the EU on an effective humanitarian scheme, fast delivering aid to both Syrian refugees and host communities. The scheme should continue. If, however, Turkey elected to cancel the agreement, the EU should be prepared to reallocate funds earmarked for refugees in Turkey to refugees in Greece and other countries.
Against this background, on October 19 and 20, EU leaders should set clear priorities about Turkey’s economic links with Europe; the country’s human rights and rule of law record; ongoing counterterrorism cooperation; and how to deliver an EU message to its citizens.
On the economic front, the European Union remains a fundamental anchor for Turkey, especially with regard to trade, investment, and technology. Güven Sak, a prominent Turkish economist, has recently explained that “The performance of the Turkish economy directly depends on the performance of the EU economy. The political upheaval in our newly diversified Middle Eastern markets have strengthened, not weakened this dynamic.” The EU also has important stakes in Turkey’s manufacturing and services sectors.
This is why the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is vital for both sides, and should not fall victim of Brussels’ many political frustrations with Ankara. The European Council should move the agreement forward under a precise set of conditions, because Europeans need a level economic playing field if they are to continue to do business with Turkey.
This is where human rights and the rule of law come into play.
The recent and unprecedented dismantling of Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture is also hurting the country’s economy, from arbitrariness in the judiciary to flimsy accusations of “terrorism” against EU firms to precooked public procurements. This is why concrete and measurable steps toward restoring economic governance standards are an indispensable condition for a renovated Customs Union to become reality. Turkey’s business organizations and the government’s economic branch should exert influence in that direction. As an upcoming Carnegie Europe publication will soon outline, a revamped Customs Union agreement will be a tall challenge for Turkey to achieve and for the EU to agree, but it will prove beneficial for both sides.
Of equal importance is the issue of the rule of law in Turkey. The European Council should state in unequivocal terms its firm condemnation of the massive infringements to the rule of law, freedom of the press, and human rights in Turkey. The European Council should say plainly that this extraordinary backsliding has shattered Turkey’s “political compatibility” with the EU. The council should also announce reinforced support to human rights defenders and to democratic civil society organizations in Turkey, especially in the fields of education, culture, and women’s rights. Dedicating a significant part of EU pre-accession funds toward such an objective will convey an important message to both Turkey’s leadership and its battered civil society. Modalities should be carefully crafted to ensure fairness and avoid political interference.
A third priority for the European Council and EU member states is the continuation and reinforcement of counterterrorism cooperation in conjunction with the anti-ISIL campaign in Syria and Iraq. Turkey should focus on international terrorism concerns. By contrast, efforts to draw EU governments, businesses, and citizens into the domestic arena are unacceptable because, having had an alliance with the Gülenists since 2012, the ruling AKP owns the crisis that followed Turkey’s 2016 failed coup.
The fourth priority of the European Council is to send a strong message to the citizens of Turkey: Europeans have not developed hostility toward them and the EU is willing to continue supporting democracy in Turkey. This is neither about equating the people of Turkey with their leadership, nor about cutting off all ties. EU efforts to maintain economic links with conditionality and supporting civil society in the country will be part of that messaging. But so is making clear that EU governments and citizens can no longer accept regular bullying, interference, and lecturing from Turkey’s leadership at a time when the country’s democratic architecture is being systematically dismantled and its freethinkers treated with total arbitrariness.