The real issue that governs EU-Turkey relations is strategy, not democracy
The recent social uprising and the fluctuations in global and local financial system have once again reminded us a 50-year old issue: the EU-Turkey relations. The Commission and some ambassadors of the EU countries have openly stated that the police used excessive force to tackle the recent demonstrations in Turkey, which is an evidence of mis-match in democratic values and increased authoritarianism in Turkey. The government opposed as usual trying to convince our European friends that “Gezi Parkı” events is a set up designed by local and global forces!
Recently a colleague of mine, Christian Berggren, wrote an op-ed for the Svenska Dagbladet in Swedish. I read an English translation. He argues that the EU can and should act against the increased authoritarianism and lack of democracy in Turkey. He wrote “A clear statement from the EU that real membership negotiations will be reopened as soon as Turkey turns away from the authoritarian way, releases journalists, ceases with ongoing arrests, and make changes that guarantee the independence of judges, would have a major impact on the course of events.” (I hope the English translation is correct).
While I sympathize with his arguments I do think that EU-Turkey relations have more to do with strategy rather than democracy just as in the case of some recent enlargements (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and the ex-soviet bloc countries). Let me make myself clear.
Many factors including the 2007 economic crises have made the EU Commission to realise that the EU-Turkey relation is a complicated issue. If Turkey finalizes the negotiations but EU vote for the accession and say “no” (or offer some form of privileged membership) it would look very bad for the EU. This is a problem. Saying “yes” to Turkey is also a problem. Turkey is too big for EU to swallow both economically and politically. The best strategy for the EU is to push Turkey to its limits and make Turkey to walk away from the negotiations. If this happens the EU would not have to worry about a large country joining the EU and changing the political and economic balances. Moreover since Turkey decides to walk away nobody would blame the EU. This best strategy for EU is a political victory though there is a risk of Turkey falling to a complete authoritarian trap.
There are in fact two best strategies for Turkey. First is that Turkey finalizes the negotiations and become an EU member and the second is that Turkey finalizes the negotiations and make EU say “no”. Both would be a political victory for Turkey and both require completing the negotiations fully.
The length of the negotiations, the everlasting demands of the EU member states and the recent statements of Angela Merkel that they are not very willing to see Turkey as a member state (four years ago it was Sarkozy and now it is Merkel) are just few examples of how the EU is right-playing their best strategy (this has been going on for some time which make Turkish people to question the sincerity of EU. See an op-ed of mine in 2008 on the same issue. Not much has changed since then) Our European friends are very creative in finding excuses and they are equally good in political strategy. If EU openly states that negotiations cannot continue until Turkey follows a more democratic path this is not because that EU wishes the best for Turkey (as my colleague Christian argues) but because EU is following the best strategy I sketched above. Such a statement may push the Turkish government to its limit and may cause Turkey to walk away from the negotiations.
How is Turkey playing its best strategy? Pretty bad I would say. The best strategy of Turkey is to complete the negotiations as soon as possible and pound at the door of the EU. At that point any EU decision (a yes or a no) is a political success for Turkey in my view. However the Turkish government has been doing just the opposite to prolong the negotiations. While I admire my European friends in terms of their command in political strategy I cannot put forward the same for the Turkish government. The unsustainable knife’s edge position of the EU-Turkey relations is both as a result of European unwillingness and the incompetence of the Ministry of EU Affairs of Turkey. I’d say the role of the latter is more influential.