Despite all the expectations, the European Union (EU) Summit held on 10-11 December produced no serious decision to sanction Turkey. The limited actions agreed upon have been dismissed as largely symbolic. For those who follow the EU institutions closely, this was no surprise.
Expectations had been raised that a more serious warning would be given to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had crossed all red lines, but this did not happen. The EU decided to wait for the United States’ Biden administration, which will assume office on 20 January, before re-evaluating its response at the summit in March 2021. It is clear that Erdoğan will have no need to alter course in face of this timid and self-interested attitude. Immediately after the summit, he stated: “The decisions taken by the EU cannot contravene us, and nothing will come out in March as well!” The ineffectiveness of EU decision-making regarding Turkey has been clearly demonstrated.
In fact, when we look into the history of bilateral relations between Turkey and the EU, we can see that this has always been driven by a tactical approach and based on self-interest. Turkey first filed for partnership – with the goal of full membership – with the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the EU) on 31 July 1959. It made an application for full membership on 14 April 1987. On 1 January 1996, it was accepted into the EU’s Customs Union, but as there seemed to be no hope that it would fulfil the political criteria required of it, the application for full membership was frozen. Then, at the European Council summit held in Helsinki on 10-11 December 1999, Turkey was accepted as a candidate with the goal of full membership.
At that time, Abdullah Öcalan had announced a unilateral ceasefire and had ordered all Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces to leave Turkey and withdraw across the border. He was seeking a political solution to the Kurdish issue. Within this framework, the Kurdish freedom movement supported Turkey’s EU membership with its conditions that Turkey meet EU standards. They even organised a demonstration in front of the building where the EU Summit was taking place in Helsinki to show their support for Turkey’s candidacy. They thought that if Turkey was accepted as a candidate, and later – after negotiations – as an EU member, this would create a positive atmosphere for finding a political solution to the Kurdish question.
On 3 October 2005, at its Luxembourg summit, the EU decided to begin formal accession negotiations with Turkey. This was an important turning point, beginning the marathon process of trying to ensure Turkish compliance with EU criteria. Kurds in Turkey, along with other democratic forces, gave this their strong support. The search for a democratic political solution to the Kurdish question during Turkey’s EU accession process produced several initiatives. Conferences were held every year under the initiative of the EU-Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC), supported by some of the European Parliamentary groups.
EU-Turkey relations can sometimes seem like a game of cat-and-mouse, and an observer could be tempted to ask whether or not Turkey really wants to join the European Union, and whether or not the EU actually wants Turkey to become a member. Turkey is of strategic importance to the EU – as a member of NATO, as a buffer zone between Europe and the Middle East, and – most importantly – as a very important market for the European economy. EU criteria and values, which should be essential to building EU relations, have never been prioritised, and other interests have formed the basis of the relationship. Turkish governments are fully aware of this. They have calculated that they would be able to maintain a relationship based on strategic interests, and that this might even result in EU membership. They felt under no obligation to meet the Copenhagen political criteria.
When we look at the period of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, we see that Turkey has demonstrated a completely tactical and insincere approach to EU relations. Although the AKP won almost two thirds of the seats in the parliament when it first became the governing party in 2002, its power was limited by the army and the state bureaucracy. To achieve its goals, the AKP government needed the support of the EU and other external powers, and the support of the Kurds inside Turkey.
Erdoğan made it understood that he would do whatever it took to become an EU member. He received considerable support from the European Union, and continues to receive support today. To get backing from the Kurds, he went to Diyarbakir and announced: “There is the Kurdish problem in Turkey, and this problem is my problem. In the past, the state has made mistakes against the Kurds, but great states should confront their past and correct their mistakes”. This raised hopes among some Kurds, and the AKP gained considerable support among Kurdish voters. At the same time, the AKP collaborated with the Fethullah Gülen movement, which was well-organised within the state bureaucracy. Eventually, they were able to take over control of the bureaucracy, including the army, becoming the only power within the state. Once Erdogan had achieved this, he no longer had the same need for the European Union or for the Kurds. He began to state that there is no longer a Kurdish problem, and he turned to a new policy based on complete Kurdish annihilation.
Erdoğan began rolling back the so-called reforms made during the accession negotiations, and he started to demonstrate a new approach to Europe, which took the form of threats, blackmail, and insults. Especially after the abortive coup attempt in 2016 – which Erdoğan himself called a gift from God – he switched to an openly fascist rule, which continues to grow ever more repressive.
When we look at the EU, we see that leading members, Germany and France, and also pre-Brexit Britain, have taken a completely self-interested and pragmatic approach. After starting negotiations for Turkey to become a full member of the EU, they began to state that Turkey cannot become a full member, and that a privileged partnership would be better for both sides. This approach suited Erdoğan. Turkey kept key privileges without any obligation to comply with EU norms, and he could blame the lack of progress over membership on the EU. Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms, which should form a basis for EU membership, continued to be trampled on by Turkey.
Turkey’s actions have been criticised in the annual reports of the European Commission and the European Parliament, but when it comes to the EU Council, which is the EU’s main decision-making mechanism, ostensibly basic values are never acknowledged. For the Council, essential and overriding concerns are maintaining economic relations with Turkey, keeping the millions of refugees out of Europe (for which Turkey is given large amounts of money), and keeping Turkey on side as part of the balance of power against Russia.
Finding a peaceful political solution to the Kurdish question, which is the most important obstacle to Turkey’s democratisation, has never been a priority of the European Union. Turkish governments – and especially the Erdoğan administration – know this as they plan their attack on the Kurds. In recent years, Erdoğan has presided over a total crack down on the Kurds in Turkey. His government has destroyed their towns and cities, banned political parties, arrested thousands of politicians and activists, and replaced elected mayors with state-appointed officials. There has been criticism in the reports prepared by the European institutions, but this criticism is always preceded by: ‘We understand Turkey’s legitimate security concerns’. And the institutions have never gone beyond criticism and expressions of concern.
Last week’s symbolic sanctions were a response to Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, which, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, is starting to threaten EU interests. Even when agreeing to these limited sanctions, the EU made no mention of human rights violations, of destruction of the rule of law, of crackdowns on the Kurds and on democratic opposition, or of the lack of freedom of speech and media. Instead, there was repeated acknowledgement of “the EU’s strategic interest in the development of a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey”. With such an approach, the relationship between the EU and Turkey, which has already limped through an unedifying sixty-one years, will never move beyond fiasco and disappointment.