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The European Union and the New Turkey

The EU should continue to increase its support to human rights defenders, independent media and civil society. This is probably an even more arduous task than before the election

By: EBR - Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2018

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The first EU reaction to Turkey’s elections was a prudent acknowledgement of the results and an expression of the need to urgently address key shortcomings regarding the rule of law and fundamental rights. The interesting aspect will be the tone that EU leaders use in acknowledging Erdogan’s victory. The sorry experiences in of Berlin and The Hague last year and Paris in January will perhaps not induce much enthusiasm. They will express a clear will to continue working with Turkey, but effusive embraces are not in the mood as Turkish interferences in domestic EU politics are still on everyone’s mind.
The first EU reaction to Turkey’s elections was a prudent acknowledgement of the results and an expression of the need to urgently address key shortcomings regarding the rule of law and fundamental rights. The interesting aspect will be the tone that EU leaders use in acknowledging Erdogan’s victory. The sorry experiences in of Berlin and The Hague last year and Paris in January will perhaps not induce much enthusiasm. They will express a clear will to continue working with Turkey, but effusive embraces are not in the mood as Turkish interferences in domestic EU politics are still on everyone’s mind.

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by Marc Pierini*

The final numbers aren’t in yet and not much is known about fraud at the ballot box or during counting, but one thing is clear: Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now the all-powerful president of Turkey. During his five-year mandate, he will face virtually no checks and balances.

EU leaders cannot avoid issuing a position on Turkey’s elections when they meet in Brussels on June 28-29. When forging a collective opinion (if any), four elements will be considered.

First, Turkey’s election campaign was as unfair as one could possibly imagine. It was conducted under a state of emergency and a new electoral law, which gave extended powers at both the provincial and the local level to influence campaigning, voting, and counting. Erdogan used the means of the state, and he ended up being on television networks for a total of 181 hours compared with some 22 hours of airtime for his opponents combined. Opposition rallies were almost never broadcasted by mainstream channels, which are all in AKP-friendly hands.

Second, voting and vote counting operations did not escape a similar fate. This included ballot stuffing, batches of envelopes being substituted in the last minute, and opposition observers being kicked out of voting stations. It is quite remarkable that voter turnout was 87 percent.

Then, when victory was quickly proclaimed, a dual message was issued by the president: let’s forget about the campaign and move on with the “new” Turkey. In short, don’t think of challenging the legitimacy of the vote. For the rest of the world, the message was even blunter: Turkey has given a lesson on democracy.

Third, Turkey is now an institutionalized autocracy, without any real checks and balances. The president will have no prime minister and will appoint one or several vice presidents and ministers without the parliament being involved. He will also have important powers in appointing judges. The country is on a different orbit than the EU. There is no way to reconcile its new style of governance with EU standards. There is no intention in Ankara to return to a system that is anywhere near these standards.

Fourth, Ankara will run a more Turkey-centered and nationalist foreign policy, all the more so that the nationalist party MHP secured an important number of seats in parliament and is even more indispensable to the AKP. It is obvious that a number of those AKP followers who voted for Erdogan as president switched to the nationalist party MHP in the parliamentary elections. Nationalism made a solid advance. Consider the implications.

The United States will probably hear more acrimonious statements on the many issues where serious divergences already existed. The EU will continue to be criticized about Islamophobia and unfair dealings with refugees, visas, and the Customs Union.

In addition, Erdogan’s reelection occurs at the very moment when the EU is grappling with yet another internal crisis—migration and asylum—where, short of a comprehensive agreement among the EU-28, the EU-Turkey deal is seen as a “model.”

The first EU reaction to Turkey’s elections was a prudent acknowledgement of the results and an expression of the need to urgently address key shortcomings regarding the rule of law and fundamental rights. The interesting aspect will be the tone that EU leaders use in acknowledging Erdogan’s victory. The sorry experiences in of Berlin and The Hague last year and Paris in January will perhaps not induce much enthusiasm. They will express a clear will to continue working with Turkey, but effusive embraces are not in the mood as Turkish interferences in domestic EU politics are still on everyone’s mind.

In the short term, Turkey will organize its new power structure. Indications will come when those in charge of economic and monetary affairs are identified. The situation is dire: double-digit inflation, massive debt, a currency crisis, and—more importantly—an incomprehensible zero-interest rate policy very high on the president’s mind.

One of Erdogan’s first major trips abroad under his new mandate will be to the NATO summit on July 11-12 in Brussels. There, important topics will surface, in particular the procurement of S400 missiles from Russia and the possible countermeasure from the U.S. Congress, which could block the delivery of F35 aircraft to the Turkish Air Force. Though not a NATO operation, the fight against ISIL in Northern Syria could also remain a bone of contention between Washington and Ankara.

It is unclear whether many bilateral meetings will be held in Brussels with EU leaders, but they are bound to be uneasy encounters between a triumphant Turkish leader and unhappy-cum-transactional EU leaders. The latter will have on their mind not only refugees and economic interests, but more importantly—at least for Belgium, France, and Germany—counterterrorism cooperation. 

After all, anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 returning jihadists with EU passports are currently on Turkish soil, and the declared ISIL strategy is to send them back to Europe as operatives in their countries of origin. Cooperation with Turkey is therefore a must.

In the longer run, the EU will have to make a judgement on the best policy-mix with Turkey. Given the total impossibility of going back to accession talks—a no-go for Berlin, Paris, The Hague, and Vienna—the options are the same few as before the elections: visa liberalization, Customs Union modernization, refugees, and counterterrorism. 

They are all difficult subjects. Despite that, the EU should continue to increase its support to human rights defenders, independent media, and civil society. This is probably an even more arduous task than before the election. If the EU believes in soft power, Turkey is the place. This country matters.

*Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective
**First published in carnegieeurope.eu

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