The EU must continue engaging with Turkey

The recent referendum in Turkey is the latest example of populism hijacking politics around the world, and it bodes badly both for the country and for its largest trading partner, the European Union. By dramatically shifting power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, democracy, human rights and the economy will suffer.

But the European Union should also be held accountable for the outcome, and for a blatantly defective way of dealing with Turkey over the past decades. For instance, the EU failed to move forward with the accession negotiations at times when democratic support was desperately needed to empower democratic forces.

While the Turkish republic was left alone dealing with a mass influx of millions of refugees, the European Union only turned to its Mediterranean neighbour for help when confronted with its own refugee crisis.

This often-discussed political inconsistency was quickly exploited by President Erdogan’s propaganda machine, which suggested a growing European dependency on Turkey. He thus successfully established a powerful image of Turkey as a regional player, headed by a president who sets the tone for important issues like refugee policy.

A few examples of contradictory European behaviour may be mentioned at this point:

The €3 billion ($3.2 billion) refugee deal between the EU and Turkey has been a highly ambiguous arrangement in terms of human rights regulations for the migrants, and it helped to shift the institutional power balance in the Turkish republic in favour of the president’s office.

Instrumentalising Turkey to smoothen the blow of the refugee crisis in Europe has ultimately resulted in nothing but a more powerful president while marginalising other political institutions.

A lack of EU pressure on Mr. Erdogan to respect human rights after last year’s attempted coup left the way open for his government to arrest and/or fire tens of thousands of people and muzzle the media.

At the same time, the European authorities’ ban on Turkish government campaigning within EU-borders a few weeks prior to the referendum, ostensibly for security reasons, backfired. It further fuelled President Erdogan’s propaganda efforts and seems to have driven European-Turkish relations into a dead end.

The ban appeared to show that European governments made use of the tools they blame authoritarian regimes to apply to the detriment of democratisation. This inconsistency allowed President Erdogan to make the EU the ultimate bogeyman and destroy the remains of its credibility among his supporters and sympathisers.

Some demands to European decision makers:

Although the referendum campaign was marked by heavy repression, at least 49 per cent of the population cast opposing votes to the introduction of a presidential system, with the opposition contending that vote was far greater if not for alleged fraud. This is a noteworthy testimony of a critical and deeply divided population.

The European Union needs to acknowledge the fact that Turkey is not Erdogan and a large part of civil society aspires towards democratic institutions, including a functioning rule of law and human rights.

As most of these people see Turkey’s democratic path along the European accession process, it seems key that European decision makers follow a political agenda that does not leave these hopeful minds behind who are especially subjected to oppressive measures by the Turkish regime.

Populist and unreflecting anti-Turkey positions will only result in strengthening non-democratic forces within Ankara‘s political administration.

Lessons from the past should once again tell European governments to live up to their own expectations, increase transparency and thus credibility of European foreign policy.

Economic and/or political sanctions will hardly achieve tangible goals improving European-Turkish relations but would most likely further undermine any sustainable democratization of the Turkish political system.

That is why the EU should continue to engage with Turkey, out of its own interest, but also with a longer view to encourage pro-democratic, progressive political forces in the country. An isolated Turkey will likely be even more dangerous to the EU, and the refugee crisis leaves the EU no choice but to engage.