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When the bridge turns into a trap: How exploiting Turkey as a bulwark for Europe has pushed the country to the edge

Wasn’t Turkey meant to be a bulwark of political stability in an otherwise increasingly unstable Middle East? What has happened to the long extolled bridge between the West and the Middle East, that model of liberal Islam and asset to the NATO that Turkey once was?

On July 15 Turkey experienced a failed coup d’état. But although it was unsuccessful, it may be just as consequential, leaving Turkey in a state of exception leading to open enmity within the population. The botched intervention has reinforced civilian authoritarianism instead of raising demands for rights and liberties.  But the developments in rule of law and human rights that had preceded the coup were already a cause of concern. The reaction of the EU was neither one of immediate solidarity, nor did it convincingly condemn the plotters. At the end of a long list of failures of the EU to condemn the undermining of democratic values and human rights in Turkey, has it now looked on for too long and sealed Turkey’s insecure fate?

The history of the Turkish Republic has been punctuated by coups d’état. At a time when armed forces in Turkey were regarded as the guarantor of the secular regime and Turkey was a bulwark against the Soviet Union for the West, time and again generals took control over the country. The botched coup on June 15 was in many ways different to those military take-overs – singularly because it did not succeed. From early on something was amiss, as the coup did not find a base of support in society such as“civilian martyrs” stopping the tanks on the very bridge that spans the continents.

Partners in shame

While Turkey has been turning its back on the West for several years, recent months have shown a much greater need for partnership in light of its failed and mismanaged foreign policy in Syria and its disagreements with Russia. But the West is in even greater need of Turkey as a buffer this time around, not against encroaching Soviet power, but in the desperate fight against the threat of civil war, refugees and terrorism. In fact the situation has shown a shift in the balance of power that has effectively left more leverage in the hands of Turkey towards the EU than vice versa. The European Union, in its forlorn attempt to stem the refugee crisis without managing to share the burden among the member states, believed the only way forward was to pay Turkey to become its partner in shame. Increasing Islamist tendencies, a full-blown war raging in the Kurdish region and a widening polarization had destabilized the country, even prior to the signing of the deal. The hapless way in which the EU has exploited Turkey has exacerbated the situation even further. The refugee deal and its bargaining structure have allowed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to demand visa-free travel and up to € 6 billion in return for curbing the numbers of refugees crossing into Europe. And the EU has been watching, trying desperately to cling onto shreds of evidence that Turkey is not finally descending into dictatorship and chaos, to fulfill its role in this very bargain.

In fact there has been a troubling unwillingness by EU leaders to defend fundamental liberties in Turkey which has been detrimental to the cause of Turkish supporters of Europe. The lack of international outrage over the human rights violations in the Kurdish provinces after the imposition of curfews on several towns and heavy shelling of populated areas is just one example. Here, the EU has used the smokescreen of Turkey’s right to fight PKK terrorism to abandon its values and give the developments in Turkey its blessing.  This has deepened the feeling that the EU is no more than a transactional partner which has no intention of treating Turkey as an equal partner and accession country.

Are two threats one too many?

But after the coup European leaders still do not realise that it is detrimental to remain passive in the face of such an attack on the constitutional order and democratic system of an accession country. While the opportunistic reaction by the government to eliminate opponents must be fully condemned, it cannot be the sole reaction. By so doing the EU continues to erode any moral authority it may still bear. This reaction is not regaining the EU any leverage, but rather bringing more of the same toxic, short-sighted policy that has alienated even the strongest supporters of the EU in Turkey. While a condemnation of the coup may not have prevented the country from sliding even further down the rabbit-hole of authoritarianism, it would have put the EU into a better position at the negotiating table.

The once strong normative leverage of the EU has struck rock bottom and its supporters within Turkey feel suffocated. No wonder that Erdoğan is seeing little opposition at home to the narrative of events in which once again he has managed to unite the country against a common enemy. We see all too clearly an authoritarian government with an agenda of “purging” its institutions of any opposition forces and replacing them with loyalists to gain total control of Turkey’s state institutions and achieve complete legal impunity for its criminal actions. But what is lost from view is that by not acknowledging the threat posed by the attack on Turkey’s constitutional order, EU leaders are helping this government to achieve its goals.

The trap is snapping shut on opposition voices

The spaces for political influence in between the anvil of martial rule and the hammer of surging authoritarianism are yet again becoming ever narrower for democratic forces in Turkey. By a simple show of solidarity the EU would have made its justified critique of the institutional “purge” more forceful. And crucially, it would have regained some credibility in the eyes of democratic opposition forces as an actor in the promotion of democracy.  It is hard to see how the EU can now avert this final rupture. The only hope perhaps is to have the assurance that the struggle to occupy these spaces, however difficult, will somehow continue in between or beyond the grip of the totalitarian state. However, the trap is rapidly snapping shut on opposition voices and minority groups.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.