European Union Leverage in Turkey

Recent actions by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cast doubt on his democracy credentials and raise doubt about the reliability of Turkey as an ally of the West.
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Recent actions by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cast doubt on his democracy credentials and raise doubt about the reliability of Turkey as an ally of the West. The international community can help get Turkey back on track by demonstrating commitment to its Euro-Atlantic integration and using the framework of European Union (EU) accession to encourage a more constructive approach on human rights, Kurdish issues, and regional relations.

Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Erdogan has stabilized Turkey's economy and initiated a decade of prosperity. Turkey has become a leading member of the G-20, and an important emerging market. Erdogan deserves credit for his economic policies. He also deserves praise for taking on Turkey's military establishment, subordinating the "deep state" to civilian authority.

Turkey's economic boom kept Turks from focusing on the AKP's authoritarianism. But Turks are a proud people who can't be bought, cowed or coerced. For the first time in Erdogan's 11-year reign, Turks are standing up to demand more from their government.

Popular frustrations boiled over when Erdogan ordered a violent crackdown against peaceful demonstrators protesting plans to build a shopping mall at Gezi Park in central Istanbul on May 28, 2013. The protest spread to 70 cities, fueled by police brutality and systematic detention of protesters. Turkey lost its bid to host the 2020 Olympics partly as a consequence of excessive violence in Gezi.

The protests were fueled by the resentment of Turks over the systematic intrusion of government into their private lives. Secular Turks chafe under Erdogan's Islamist dictates regarding alcohol consumption, family size, and even lipstick color. Freedom of expression is under attack, with judicial proceedings used against political opponents. More than 500 journalists and military officers have been arrested and accused of plotting against Erdogan's government since 2007. Open-ended administrative detention has undermined the rule of law.

In addition, Erdogan has squandered a historic opportunity to resolve the Kurdish conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives over three decades. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced a cease-fire and withdrawal of forces on March 23, 2013. But Erdogan treated the cease-fire as a goal in itself rather than as part of a process to address Kurdish concerns.

Erdogan failed to release political prisoners arrested on trumped-up charges of consorting with a terrorist organization. He also failed to amend provisions in the penal code and anti-terror law that are used to curtail basic freedoms. In addition, he failed to adopt constitutional guarantees for Kurdish identity, cultural and political rights, or devolve power to local government giving Kurds greater control over administration, economic affairs, and cultural issues such as education and local language use. Erdogan supports a new "civilian constitution" because its executive presidency is an office to which Erdogan aspires.

On foreign policy, Erdogan has made one misstep after another. Turkey is in conflict with every neighbor except Iraqi Kurdistan. Its policy of "zero problems with neighbors" is a fiasco. Turkey has no ambassador in Egypt, Syria and Israel.

While Erdogan advocated military action in Syria, Turks are not convinced. Many resent the costs of supporting Syrian refugees and the contagion of cross-border violence. Erdogan has aligned Turkey with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states against Assad's regime, supporting the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadi groups. He embraced the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt, and supports Hamas.

Erdogan's arrogance, authoritarianism and polarizing personality have spiked tensions among Turks, and between Turkey and the West. EU membership offers more than fiscal rewards. Member States share "European values," enshrining human rights, women's rights, and minority and group rights.

Turkey became an EU candidate country in December 1999. In 2004, a public opinion survey by the German Marshall Fund found that 75 percent of Turks supported EU membership. That number has consistently decreased. Today, only 44 percent are in favor of joining the EU.

European countries bear a lot of the blame. Powerful EU members -- Germany, France, and the Netherlands -- have expressed doubts about Turkey's suitability, floating a variety of alternatives. When Germany suggested "privileged partnership," Erdogan decried it as a double standard. When France proposed a public referendum on Turkey's candidacy, he accused then President Nicholas Sarkozy of racism. Erdogan rebuffed reservations by the Netherlands with charges of Islamophobia. He labeled the EU a Christian Club. Angered at the EU for shifting the goal posts, Erdogan launched a strategic partnership with Russia and pivoted towards the Middle East, reaching out to Iran and pandering to the Arab street.

Engaging European leaders in a war of words negatively influenced the view of Turks towards the EU. European leaders also made the mistake of getting into a tit-for-tat with Erdogan, squabbling in public over matters that might have been addressed more discreetly.

European misgivings about Turkey have occurred at a time when the EU is experiencing enlargement fatigue and confronting a major fiscal crisis. Turks no longer believe they are wanted by the EU. They are justifiably skeptical about joining a body that doesn't want them. Exacerbating tensions to score political points, Erdogan capitalized on hurt feelings by appealing to nationalist sentiments and wounded pride.

EU candidate countries must meet economic and political conditions called the "Copenhagen criteria." Candidates must have a stable democratic government that respects the rule of law, and its corresponding freedoms and institutions. The EU Commission annually issues "progress" reports, evaluating Turkey's compliance with the acquis communautaire. The acquis contains 35 chapters comprised of about 80,000 pages of rules and regulations governing candidacy. It uses the review to recommend policy adjustments, highlighting both progress and problems. While the EU accession process has proven to be an effective instrument for leveraging reforms in candidate countries, the framework for accession has limited leverage unless Turks believe they have an honest chance of joining the EU.

Rebuilding confidence of Turks in Europe starts with affirmations of Turkey's European character. The European Council of Ministers should publicly recommit to Turkey's eventual membership. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel can convey messages of support, omitting references to conditionality. The EU can highlight the benefits to Turkey from access to the European market; express its commitment to continued pre-accession aid; and approve visa liberalization for Turkish passport holders.

The EU should also consider opening new chapters in the accession negotiations. Specifically it could initiate Chapter 23, which deals with human rights. Engaging Ankara in a human rights dialogue would provide a framework for the EU to raise its concerns. More broadly, rebuilding confidence in the accession process would restore the West's leverage over a range of issues from human rights to environmental issues, to cross-border cooperation between Turkey and its neighbors.

Turkey needs a path and timetable for membership with clearly defined rewards, as well as negative consequences for actions that are inconsistent with European norms. A policy of carrots and sticks is the basis for a more constructive approach by the West towards Turkey. But for carrots and sticks to work, Turks must be convinced they have a genuine European prospective.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights and a former Senior Adviser to the U.S. Department of State.

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