DAVA Analytic Brief no. 4 by Bogdan Mureșan, Guest Expert

(also see in .pdf  format)

Given their geopolitical position and economic interdependence, in all likelihood, Turkey and the European Union (still) have much to offer each other. Going back from the establishment of the modern republic on the ruins of the former Ottoman Empire, throughout the long Cold War years, and then in the post-9/11 era, Turkey’s officially stated position in the liberal world order has been that of an aspiring Western power and European partner, with Islamic characteristics. Among others, Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949, became a member of the North-Atlantic Alliance in 1952 and applied for EU (then European Economic Community) accession in 1987, making it the bloc’s longest-standing application.

Ankara, officially a candidate country since 1999, still considers the accession talks (opened in 2005) as the backbone of its relations with the European community, and its membership bid has been hailed as a quintessential anchor on its way to becoming a more mature and liberal democracy, with a more inclusive society and a more representative central government. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power ever since 2003, once praised the European Commission’s formal invitation to join the exclusive club of democracies as a validation of its self-described Muslim Democrat worldview. But recently, after years of broken promises, missed opportunities and frustration, Turkish President and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose increasingly authoritarian policies after last year’s coup attempt, culminating with the April referendum, have alienated most Western allies, has urged the EU to make up its mind on Turkey’s membership.

His request came as a reaction of the European Parliament’s newest resolution – symbolic and non-binding – calling for the suspension of accession talks between the two sides, against the backdrop of repeated infringements of human rights and democratic backsliding. The Turkish strongman explained that both the crackdown and the increased presidential powers were necessary for the country to help it tackle serious challenges to its national security, both domestic and foreign. In response to the purges under an ongoing state of emergency, the EU unanimously decided in December last year that it would open no new chapters for Turkey’s membership.

Normative Power Europe

The European Union is easier to experience than to define or measure. But, regardless of the various contesting views over its international role, it is fair to say that the European space is one of genuine political pluralism and multiculturalism and remains so in spite of Europe’s populist surge. Since the Treaty of Rome, several theories and analytical frameworks have attempted to conceptualize the role of the European construct as a regional and international actor, looking at what the EU is, what it may be and, most importantly, what it ought to be. Building upon the vision of civilian power and military power, Ian Manners introduced the idea of normative power Europe as a framework of analysis for the role of a united Europe in the post-Cold War era. His notion, contested by some, has become one of the most popular tools for analysing the external relations and foreign policy of the European Union (assuming that the EU can align its Member States’ interests and in fact speak with a single voice on certain high politics issues).

Manners talks about five core norms: the centrality of peace, the idea of liberty, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, which make for the normative basis of the European Union and a sort of common guide of foreign policy. To these he adds four “minor” norms – social solidarity, anti-discrimination, sustainable development and good governance. The two main channels of norms diffusion may be considered contagion and transference, each representative for two different approaches: power by example (symbolic normative power) and power by relations (substantial normative power).

The European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, boosted by the transformative power of positive conditionality, is one of the most effective foreign policy instruments currently at the EU’s disposal. Even to start the negotiations in order to become a member requires democratic reforms and amendments to existing legislation for all aspiring countries. During previous enlargement waves, the European Union (or its previous iterations) has successfully managed to use its substantial normative power, through the EU “conditionality”, to push for liberal reforms in states ranging from Portugal and Spain to Romania and Bulgaria after the fall of Communism. With mixed results, as some may argue, having democratic transition as corollary.

Europe’s Democratic Dilemma

For almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy, a political system marked by constitutional liberalism. Because democracy is one public virtue (and core norm), but certainly not the only and most important one. Adolf Hitler came to power in a democracy with a highly liberal constitution and used democratic tools to undermine and eventually abolish democracy itself. According to Fareed Zakaria, free and fair elections are but one condition for liberal democracy. They need to be complemented by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties and human rights. As the European Union has been one of the leading actors promoting liberal democracy and human rights worldwide, any compromises made in this field may send dangerous diplomatic signals about the bloc’s priorities and normative creed.

Granted, the overall state of democracy in the world is much less healthy than optimists predicted during the early years of democracy’s third wave, especially at a time when, under the leadership of American President Donald Trump, the US State Department is considering reducing its efforts of democratic assistance and human rights promotion. Also, it goes without saying that the rise of populism in the last couple of years in Europe has had important consequences for the state of liberal democracy on the continent. Although populism is not necessarily antidemocratic, it is essentially illiberal in nature, an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. The examples of Hungary and Poland are the most obvious that come to mind, but are not as exceptional as we would like to think.

Like it or not, we live in the era of double standards, both in domestic and international affairs, with no universally agreed upon standard for fairness or social justice. But common sense if nothing else prompts us to believe that we ought to at least have a fundamental moral standard for human decency. And there actually exists one, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. And it basically says that national sovereignty (or national security) and diplomatic requirements should not allow states and governments to threaten or harm their own citizens arbitrarily. Nor allow them to impinge on the freedom of expression and the critical public debate. But such moral imperatives get lost in the mundane when the survival of a certain regime becomes the main raison d’etat, with the most striking example being that of North Korea, the last Stalinist state in the world.

Europe’s Turkish Dilemma

Arguably, this bittersweet romance had a good start. After he assumed office in March 2003 in his first term as Prime Minister, the former mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party oversaw three rounds of political reforms, including a reduced role of the military in politics, a consolidation of the freedom of the press and a change of the penal code. The period 2005-2013 was marked by inconsistent reform efforts in Turkey, but also by mounting European doubts regarding the acceptance inside the EU of a sizeable Muslim nation that may have spurred a “clash of civilizations”. But whereas the promise of EU membership once encouraged bold reforms, the loss of European perspective nurtured domestic decline and instability in Turkey, which all led to the failed coup attempt of July 2016, providing Erdogan with his Reichstag Fire moment. Things went downhill from there and conspiracy theories abound.

Currently, out of the 16 open negotiation chapters (35 in total), only one (concerning research and science) has been provisionally closed by Ankara, while many of the most troublesome issues remain blocked after 12 years of formal talks. Yet, the accession negotiations still provide the best structured framework for dialogue, enabling Brussels to engage with Ankara in a constructive manner, and are preferable to a transactional relationship with Turkey, or to a Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In the EU’s defense, it is worth mentioning that starting accession negotiations does not represent in itself a guarantee for actual membership. As is the case with democratic progress, European integration is an ongoing process and, unfortunately, not an irreversible one.

Given the strained relationship between Turkey and the European Union at that moment, the migrant crisis of 2015 could have been a deal breaker and bring an end to Turkey’s agonizingly slow EU bid. But the crisis was turned into an opportunity, or so most of the world thought. When the EU and Turkey reached a refugee deal in March 2016, the most significant advance for Turkey’s EU accession process since 2010 followed. The European leaders agreed to “re-energise” Turkey’s accession process in return for its cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees, turning a blind eye to various human rights abuses ironically facilitated by the deal. Instead of solving the problem, the limited success of the deal highlighted the underlying flaws in the EU’s border control and asylum policies.

So what happens now?

With all said and done, the European Union has been critical in fostering reforms in Turkey. The growing tension between threatening to suspend accession negotiations over Erdogan’s authoritarian drive that undermines the EU’s normative power, while bearing in mind the importance of a pragmatic Realpolitik approach of the Turkish-EU relations in economic and security terms, illustrates the latest installment of the European Union’s seemingly perennial Turkish dilemma and ambivalence which dates back from the 1960s. A situation made worse by Europe’s own democratic dilemma, fueled by the rise of populism, xenophobia and euroscepticism.

Guided by principled pragmatism, Brussels is treading a fine line and knows that a complete shutdown of Turkey’s EU perspective, no matter how surreal an accession outcome may seem at this point, would leave Erdogan without an extremely useful political scapegoat. It would also mean admitting the failure of the bloc’s normative power and conditionality on a grand scale. As such, the next meeting of the European Council on October 19-20 may prove to be a turning point in the bilateral relations.

While there is no appetite for deepening the partnership in either Turkey or the EU as things stand, the alternative, a deeply polarized and unstable Turkey, with a faltering economy and a renewed friendship with Russia, is not in Europe’s best interests. Turkey’s biggest economic anchor and trading partner remains the EU, while longstanding ties with the United States and NATO membership provide the security anchor. But these two elements should not be taken for granted by the West. Last year, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement to revive a suspended natural-gas pipeline project and this month President Erdogan announced that Turkey had signed a deal to purchase a Russian surface-to-air missile system. That spells bad news for Europe and Washington.


Bogdan Mureșan, Associate Editor, Romanian Journal of European Affairs, European Institute of Romania. Guest Expert, DAVA | Strategic Analysis. The views presented in the article express the author’s opinion and not that of the European Institute of Romania.


Photo credit: faruk | Flickr.com
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