Over the weekend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrapped up what seemed to be a successful state visit to Paris. A scratch beneath the surface, however, shows that despite the niceties, it was anything but warm or fruitful.
For starters, angry protestors greeted Erdogan at the gates of the Elysee Palace, accusing him of human rights abuses back home. The accusations refer, of course, to the massive crackdowns that engulfed Turkey after the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Erdogan has been accused of sacking around 140,000 people and arresting another 55,000. For most of these individuals, their only crimes are to have indulged in alleged anti-government activities, held anti-government views, or had affiliations with the outspoken US-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
Once inside the Elysee, Erdogan was bluntly confronted by his host, President Emmanuel Macron, who basically told him to forget about Turkey’s eternal hope of joining the EU. “I’d be lying if I said we could open new chapters,” said Macron, adding that recent developments in Turkey “do not allow any progress.” Sulking, Erdogan snapped that Turkey had already waited too long and was unwilling to wait any longer.
This puts an end — almost once and for all — to Erdogan’s European ambition, which has been a cornerstone of his foreign policy ever since the rise of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) back in 2003. Seeing the writing on the wall, he has been rapidly investing time and effort in building relations elsewhere – in Sudan, Somalia, Chad, and throughout the Arab and Muslim Worlds.
Erdogan once argued that an economically successful Muslim state like Turkey would both enrich and empower Europe. As recently as last October, he was quoted as saying: “A Europe without Turkey will only reach isolation, desperation and civil strife. Turkey does not need Europe. Europe is the one that is in need (of Turkey).”
Within the EU, however, opinion has always been sharply divided on what to do with Turkey’s application, which has been lagging since 2005. Some countries, including Britain, argued that joining the EU would force the Turks to reform from within, to democratize, and to adhere to European values and principles, in a way similar to what had happened with former Soviet satellite states on joining the EU.
EU membership would revamp the Turkish judiciary, they argued, curb the powers of Turkish intelligence, and empower civil society. The benchmark would be how much Turkey adhered to the rules of the Copenhagen Criteria, which stipulate, among other things, the stability of state institutions, democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, protection for minorities and a functioning market economy.
Although Turkey became eligible for EU membership back in 1997 and abolished the death penalty in 2004 as Erdogan campaigned for accession, its track record since then has been rather unimpressive, by European standards, especially after Erdogan’s crackdown against Gazi Park protestors in 2013 and the nationwide purge of 2016.
Many in Europe have been lukewarm, at best, about the prospect of welcoming an additional 80 million Muslims into Europe, while the elephant in the room remains the issue of Turkish Cyprus, occupied by the Turkish Army since 1974. The internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus — a member of the EU since 2004 — would never allow Turkey’s bid to pass before that issue is settled.
Some believe, however, that the problem is more with Erdogan himself than with the Turkish Republic. Once hailed and admired throughout the world as the champion of moderate Islam, his ambitions have gotten the better of him, earning him many enemies over the past few years.
His alliance with Iran has been highly problematic, and so has his sponsorship of groups recognized internationally as “terrorist organizations,” including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Last April, he staged a controversial referendum, greatly empowering the Turkish presidency at the expense of other branches of government. That prompted German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to say that Turkey would never join the EU so long as Erdogan remained in power: Gabriel noted that “the Turkish Government and Erdogan are moving fast away from everything that Europe stands for.”
Last month, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov declared: “Let’s leave behind the hypocrisy about Turkey’s membership process.” He called for a special partnership deal instead, echoing former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who once suggested a “privileged partnership” between Turkey and the EU – one which Erdogan regarded as a polite way of saying “second-class membership.”
Once hailed and admired throughout the world as the champion of moderate Islam, Erdogan’s ambitions have gotten the better of him, earning him many enemies over the past few years
Some officials at the EU are of the view that the Turkish issue has occupied them for far too long, and that it should be put aside in favor of applications from other countries such as Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia.
Smarting from Macron’s rebuttal, Erdogan has taken the opportunity to cuddle up closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, knowing that by doing so he irks other NATO member states. The Turkish leader is already furious with the United States, not least over Donald Trump’s support for Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, who hope to create a Kurdish enclave on his borders with Syria.
Not only has Trump ignored Erdogan’s plea to stop arming the Kurds, but plans are underway to increase membership of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an all-Kurdish army, from 35,000 to 40,000. Putin, meanwhile, has been largely accommodating – he has let Erdogan’s forces march deep into Syrian territory to prevent towns from being overrun by the Kurds, and has agreed not to invite any Kurdish figures remotely associated with the PKK to Syrian peace talks in Sochi later this month – a personal favor to Erdogan, no doubt.
In April, the EU will rule on whether or not Turkey fits the Copenhagen Criteria. If the report is negative, which is highly probable, the way will be paved for a firm, strategic, and potentially fiendish Turkish-Russian alliance — one that might last for a very long time.