Over a hundred and fifty years ago, the apocryphal story goes, the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s forerunner, was dubbed the Sick Man of Europe by Tsar Nicholas I.
It seems that the sickliness is back and once again Turkey would like to join Europe, known today as the European Union (the EU), while the EU is having grave reservations for several reasons, but mainly because of Turkey’s miserable human rights record.
The non-violent protests that began almost a month ago in Taksim Square have been met with increasing police and state violence which has aroused condemnation in Europe, causing the EU to threaten to call off talks about Turkey’s joining the union:
The European Union is on the verge of scrapping a new round of membership talks with Turkey, a move that would further undermine Ankara’s already slim hopes of joining the bloc anytime soon and damage its relations with Brussels.
Germany, the EU’s biggest economic power, is blocking efforts to revive Turkey’s EU membership bid, partly because of its handling of anti-government protests that have swept the country in the last few weeks, EU sources say.
The Netherlands, too, has voiced reservations about the EU’s plan to open talks with Turkey next Wednesday on a new “chapter”, or policy area, the sources say.
If there is no last-minute change of heart in Berlin, Ireland, currently holder of the EU presidency, will have to tell Turkey that Wednesday’s meeting has been postponed or cancelled.
Turkey, already locked in a diplomatic row with Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was appalled by its crackdown on protesters, has made clear it would respond forcefully to any EU decision to scrap Wednesday’s talks.
Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, said the Turkish government was in a “very prickly and combative mood” and was likely to respond to an EU snub by suspending political contacts and meetings with EU institutions, and possibly recalling its ambassador.
However, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, did not see Turkey breaking off accession talks, which began in 2005, 18 years after Turkey first applied to join.
Given Turkey’s position adjoining Iran and Syria, the strategic case for Europe having a relationship with Turkey was greater than ever, he said. Turkey is an influential power in the Middle East and a member of the NATO military alliance.
France and Germany have always had doubts about allowing a largely Muslim country of 76 million people into the European club, fearing that cultural differences and its size will make it too difficult to integrate.
It is easy to understand France and Germany’s concerns which are addressed more fully in this Algemeiner article about Turkey’s fitness for joining the EU given its Islamization and Anti-Semitism:
Many Turks are fed up with the slow yet inexorable Islamization of their country, which Erdogan has begun.Specifically, they are fed up with Erdogan’s promotion of conservative Islamic dress codes; with his demand that married couples have at least three children; with his prohibitions on the sale of alcohol and his opposition to abortion; with his scolding of couples who dare to smooch in public; and with his clampdown on freedom of speech and of the media, which has resulted in Turkey having more journalists in prison than any other country in the world. As the German magazine Der Spiegel pointed out recently, Turkey’s enthusiasm for incarcerating journalists—by some estimates, more than 60 are currently in jail—beats the records of even China and Iran.
It was always unrealistic to expect that an arrogant autocrat like Erdogan would actually listen to the demands of the protestors. His standard response has been to fulminate against shadowy plots hatched by Marxists, Kurdish separatists, and—most of all—Jews.
If you really want to see a plot, though, look no further than Erdogan himself. Yeni Safak is owned by Berat Albayrak, who is married to Erdogan’s daughter (their wedding ceremony was broadcast live on Turkish television.) Berat’s brother, Serhat Albayrak, is a press advisor to Erdogan, while their father, Mustafa, is the head of Albayrak Holdings, a construction company that has prospered visibly under the present Islamist government. The company recently issued a nervous denial that it had been awarded the contract to build a shopping mall on the ground currently occupied by Gezi Park—the very same affront which sparked the protests in the first place.
When this intimate network of familial and business ties is properly considered, it stretches credibility to think that Erdogan is somehow unaware of Yeni Safak’s vile Jew-baiting. Indeed, when you introduce Erdogan’s consistent assaults on Israel into the equation—like his recent, outrageous declaration that Zionism is a “crime against humanity”—you can see perfectly well how such attacks serve his broader political interests. After all, blaming the Jews is what Middle Eastern autocrats do.
Which brings me to the issue of Turkey’s bid for membership of the EU. There’s a widespread impression that the bid, launched as far back as 1999, is unlikely to result in full membership. But that’s not what Erdogan believes. He is adamant that Turkey is entitled to EU membership and his virulent reaction to the European Parliament’s recent condemnation of his government’s repressive acts—“I don’t recognize you!” he roared in response—is a sign of his growing impatience.
To their credit, EU leaders have, thus far, proven that they have something of the backbone that many observers have doubted they possess. Stefan Fule, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, told an audience in Istanbul, which included Erdogan, of the need to “aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices…
But the fundamental question remains unresolved: Should Turkey be admitted to the EU? One can see how membership of the EU would boost the fortunes of those courageous Turks who have risked life and limb in their confrontation with Erdogan. Equally, the Europe that emerged after the Second World War cannot, by its very nature, tolerate the kind of government that has hospitalized more than 7,000 of its own citizens simply for exercising their right to peacefully protest. And it certainly cannot tolerate the kind of anti-Semitic agitation that brings to mind the worst excesses of the 1930s.
Now it appears that the Turkish protests, and Erdogan’s response to them, are not only influencing the EU’s decision but also Erdogan’s own foreign activism:
The unrest in Turkey is forcing Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to expend his political capital at home, possibly leading to a more relaxed foreign policy.
Erdogan’s efforts to quash the protests and have his supporters hold rallies across the country could mean, contrary to what some analysts are saying, that he may double down not only at home, but also abroad.
Some of the first foreign policy consequences of the government’s crackdown were felt on Tuesday, when the EU postponed a round of membership talks with Ankara to October.
To Turkey’s south, the Syrian civil war rages and despite strong rhetoric from Erdogan and some support for fellow Sunnis fighting in the opposition, Ankara has not taken military action against the Assad regime.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post that Turkey now has “an opposition movement that transcends the parliament, taking its organized voice to the streets.” It will be able to challenge Ankara’s Syria policy, he said.
Cagaptay expanded on this point: “Currently many Turks want Assad to go, but many of them also do not support Ankara’s Syria policy which they think has exposed Turkey to the fallout of the Syrian war.
Accordingly, the new street opposition is likely to check Ankara’s Syria policy.
“This suggests that Turkey is going to compete with the United States to lead from behind in Syria,” he added.
Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for Hurriyet and the author of the book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, agreed, telling the Post the protests will further restrict Ankara’s room for maneuver in Syria by focusing the attention of the government on domestic troubles rather than foreign policy.
“A Turkish intervention in Syria, which was already unlikely, is now unimaginable,” he said.
However, despite analysis that Turkey has lost much of its ability to act in Syria and other areas, the country still is more likely to act in critical regions, according to Anat Lapidot-Firilla, a Turkish expert and senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.
Lapidot-Firilla points out three exceptions to what she calls Turkey’s strategic retreat.
First, she said, Turkey is unlikely to stop its involvement in the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. Second, and related to the first point, Turkey will continue to press ahead at full speed with its plans to secure the flow of natural gas, which is badly needed for its industry and its goal of becoming an energy hub.
Lastly, Turkey’s election campaign is starting and therefore Erdogan will most likely continue the country’s activity related to the Palestinians and the Gaza Strip, as it can always be used to distract the public from domestic troubles.
“Gaza is a treasure” for the Turkish regime, she said.
No truer words have been spoken. Gaza is a win-win situation for Erdogan. He can boost his popularity with the Islamists at home and thumb his nose at both America and Israel – which is why he is still planning to visit Gaza:
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that despite having to postpone a visit to Gaza planned for June due to the Gezi Park protests, which have shaken the country for more than three weeks, he intends to make the visit soon.
“These [Gezi] events unfortunately led to this postponement. Gaza is ready, but we could not be ready because of these events. We could make a surprise at any moment,” the prime minister told after a group meeting of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Parliament on Tuesday.
Erdoğan earlier made several statements about visiting Gaza but the date was repeatedly delayed due to various factors. The US has publicly urged the prime minister to cancel the visit but Erdoğan has said he will go ahead with it. Erdoğan enjoys high popularity in Gaza because of the messages of solidarity with Gazans he has given on many occasions and his rhetoric against Israel, which imposes air, land and naval embargoes on the Palestinian strip.
Erdogan is despicable little man who leads a huge and influential country. This is both their and our misfortune. Let us hope that the EU stands firm in their rejection of Turkey until their record improves.
Let us also hope, for our sakes and for the sake of the Turkish people, that Turkey will get to enjoy a new enlightened and forward-looking leadership sooner rather than later.