TURKISH President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have succeeded in convincing Pakistan’s government to expel Turkish teachers accused of links to an alleged terrorist organisation — a decision now put on hold by a Pakistani court — but the Turkish leader’s links with the European Union have hit an all-time low.
There is talk of “Trexit” or an end to Turkey’s decades-old bid to join the EU. Erdogan has hinted that he is fed up with the EU and ready to move on and seek other partners.
But the message from Ankara is confusing. In Brussels this week, Turkish officials were adamant that “full membership” of the EU was still their aim. And they insisted that Turkey wanted above all to talk about “rule of law” with the EU.
Yes, readers, EU-Turkey relations are complicated. They are difficult, tetchy and at times amusing. Both sides need each other but don’t trust each other. “Can’t live with you, can’t live without you”.
Deep inside where it matters, EU policymakers are wary of opening their club to a majority Muslim nation. And similarly, deep inside where it matters, Turkish officials think Europeans are arrogant and Islamophobic.
Both assumptions are correct. Blame it on history, the crusades, Christian-Muslim rivalries that cast a dark shadow even in the 20th Century. But the love-hate EU-Turkey relationship is entering an even more fraught era.
The EU agreed years ago that Turkey could join the EU — and negotiations began in earnest in 2005.
The talks have never been easy — not least because of the shadow cast by the divided island of Cyprus.
Things are now coming to a head. The European Parliament voted last week to freeze negotiations on Turkish membership of the EU, saying Ankara was guilty of a “disproportionate and repressive” response to the failed military coup against the government on July 15.
“Since the failed military coup in July 2016, tens of thousands of people, including military personnel, public servants, teachers and university deans, prosecutors, journalists and opposition politicians, have been fired, suspended, detained or arrested,” the European Parliament said in a press release.
MEPs are also concerned about the crackdown and the threat by the Turkish President to reintroduce the death penalty.
The non-binding parliamentary resolution calls for a temporary freeze on the EU accession negotiations until the “disproportioned repressive measures are lifted”.
But allegations of human rights abuse by the Turkish government against its own citizens are piling up at the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court said last week that it has received some 850 petitions from Turkish citizens in the past two weeks.
Not surprisingly, Erdogan has reacted angrily to the European Parliament move. The Turkish leader threatened to tear up a landmark deal to stem the flow of Syrian and other refugees into Europe. He also warned that he would seek other partners in lieu of the EU.
For all their anger and frustration at Turkey’s conduct, few in Europe think it wise to allow a further worsening of relations with Ankara.
But there is a growing number of people both in Europe and Turkey who believe that Ankara should push the “Trexit” button. In other words, instead of trying so hard to join the EU, Ankara should reflect on another form of partnership with the bloc.
The new arrangement would take into account massive changes in both the European and Turkish landscapes. Clearly, both the EU and Turkey are very different today than they were when they started their courtship in the 1960s.
The EU was still a modest club of six democracies seeking peace and stability after the devastation of World War II. Turkey was struggling with numerous economic and political challenges including efforts to keep the Turkish army away from national politics.
Fast forward to 2016, and the EU counts 28 members — with Britain on the way out. The bloc is big but chastened, still powerful but also increasingly fragile.
Turkey is an undoubtedly important regional power — but also less influential than many thought it would be in dealing with Syria and Iran.
Given the changes on both sides, there are calls for the EU and Turkey to put aside the long and difficult debate on membership and focus instead on a new 21st century strategic partnership which reflects new geopolitical realities.
“That Turkey’s accession is not a realistic goal for the foreseeable future should be the starting point of this new discussion; but that acknowledgement should not be a punishment but an opportunity to redefine the relationship according to mutual interests: the refugee crisis, economic integration, counterterrorism and energy, to name a few,” argues Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.
The approach makes sense to many in Europe and to some Turkish scholars. But the Turkish government insists that past promises of membership cannot be cast aside.
Instead of looking for new avenues for partnership, both sides remain prisoners of the past, unable and unwilling to readjust their ties to a changing world order. The current impasse creates difficulties for both Europe and Turkey. Quite simply, it’s time to change tack.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2016