Turkey’s long-awaited hopes of accession to the European Union have taken a further backslide as the country’s strongman leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, steers his country away from EU membership.
After municipal elections took place on March 31st in Turkey’s two largest cities, Ankara and Istanbul, opposition-coalition leader Ekrem İmamoğlu declared a narrow victory in Istanbul in what would have ended the 25-year rule of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The results, however, were overturned by the electoral board for ‘technicalities’ involving the ballot boxes. EU leaders have criticised the ruling as capriciously applied and part of ever-expanding power grab by Erdoğan and the AKP and one that is damaging Turkish political and civil society.
With Erdoğan having been in power since 2003, first as Prime Minister now President, the election results show the opposition movement against him is strengthening as Turkey’s economy suffers its first downturn under his leadership. The Turkish lira’s value has tumbled against the US dollar and hit a new 7-month low after the Istanbul election was annulled. Further, Turkey’s reliance on Iranian oil means President Trump’s sanctions on Iranian oil will place even more pressure on its economy.
Turkey’s EU hopes
Turkey began formal negotiations to join the European Union in 2005, having applied for candidacy eighteen years earlier. Candidate states are admitted to the EU only once they have fulfilled a series of thirty-five requirements, or ‘chapters’, that constitute the EU’s body of law called the acquis communautaire, which includes the adoption of fundamental rights provisions, international trade treaties, and other EU legislation. To date, Turkey has satisfied requirements for only one of the acquis chapters.
Turkey’s accession to the EU would undoubtedly bring benefits for itself and the EU and European leaders are acutely aware of Turkey’s geostrategic significance. For the EU, Muslim majority Turkey continues to symbolise a bridge between East and West and at times Turkey has acted as a geopolitical buffer zone between Europe’s relative stability and the turbulent Middle East. This was especially true regarding the EU-Turkey joint action plan, devised in 2016 as a response to the increase in irregular migration, assisting Turkey to host nearly 4 million refugees within its borders.
Further, the Turkish economy, despite its recent downturn, is advanced and diversified and is already well integrated into the EU single-market through the EU-Turkey economic partnership. Turkey is a NATO member possessing a strong military, and with a large population of over 82 million. If granted EU membership, it would be one of the largest member states. Greater free movement of trade and people and through Turkey’s EU-membership would be greatly welcomed by all parties.
Drifting towards dictatorship and away from the EU
Erdoğan maintains EU-accession as a key element to Turkey’s foreign policy despite his government’s moves toward social and political illiberalism that are incompatible with EU doctrine. In 2016 after the unsuccessful military coup, Erdoğan’s enacted a sweeping purge of political opponents and sympathisers. To date over 125,000 civil servants have lost their jobs and reports claim that up to 160,000 government critics have been placed in jail.
Political opposition is stifled and this is coupled with a gradual forfeiture of academic freedom. Turkish media is severely restricted in what it can report. The NGO Journalists Without Borders ranks Turkey in a dismal 157th place for its lack of press freedom, which has been heavily condemned by the EU Court of Human Rights. In July 2018, Erdoğan took the unprecedented step of altering Turkey’s political system, consolidating sole control over the executive branch and giving him greater influence over the judiciary through his mandate of judicial appointments and presidential veto, and the ability to dissolve the parliament.
The EU Council has stated it cannot reconcile Turkey’s continuing lack of respect the rule of law and for fundamental rights including the freedom of expression. EU leaders in March 2019 voted to freeze Turkey’s accession application until it begins to change domestic law to ones compatible with EU doctrine.
Erdoğan, witnessing the dwindling support from Europe, is edging Turkey away from its traditional NATO allies and towards Russia. Much to US and EU chagrin, Ankara refuses to cancel a deal for Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems. Supporters argue would boost Turkey’s defence sector and aid the ongoing conflict with Kurdish separatists, but this comes at the cost of alienating NATO, the US, and Europe.
Seeing a way forward
With its economy stalling and the average Turk bearing the brunt, Ankara is still eager to join the EU for the many benefits it brings. In May, Erdoğan announced judiciary reforms aimed at correcting the post-coup political purges and begin bringing Turkish laws into line with those of the EU. This has so far been met with a wary eye in Europe. With a new European Parliament soon to be in power, time will tell if voices more sympathetic to Turkey will gain power. Any moves to placate tensions between the EU and Turkey would be welcomed but only if Erdoğan and the AKP begin to cut a path forward that is Europe-focused.
Dominic Simonelli is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.