Erdogan’s Epic Europe Trolling

The EU's decision to restart membership talks with Turkey was a major victory for Ankara -- but not for the reason you think.


Even amid the wide-ranging criticism of Turkey’s recent refugee deal with the European Union, there’s no denying that many of the demands the Turkish government put forward in negotiations over the past two weeks made perfect sense.

Ankara asked the EU for more money; that’s after it claims to have spent almost $8 billion caring for the refugees over the past five years. And it demanded visa-free travel to Europe by June; Turkish citizens have long dreamed of being able to visit the continent without the obstacles and indignities they face today.

But what about Turkey’s insistence on restarting its stalled EU accession process? This proved a major sticking point that could have derailed the deal entirely: It opened the agreement to the threat of a Cypriot veto, and infuriated many European critics who claimed that EU accession should be a matter of principle, not politics.

Yet for all the debate, both sides know perfectly well Turkey won’t be joining the EU anytime soon. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government defiantly pursuing ever-more authoritarian policies, and the Union struggling to hold together with the members it already has, no agreement between Ankara and Brussels can change this.

It’s easy to understand why EU negotiators eventually conceded: For its part, Europe may actually be more comfortable perpetuating the illusion that Turkey is progressing on the path to EU membership now that it actually isn’t. But why did the Turkish government invest so much diplomatic capital in securing this purely symbolic concession?

Because of what it symbolizes, of course. By using its political leverage to restart membership negotiations, Ankara has secured public proof of its belief that being “European” has always been more about power than principle.

This is a dramatic reversal from 2003, when Turkish leaders insisted that Turkey would implement EU reforms for their own sake. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially launched its push for EU membership, party members insisted that whatever decisions Europe made with regard to Turkey, it would continue with reforms to improve the lives of their citizens. The Copenhagen criteria, as Erdogan once said, were also the Ankara criteria.

But even in the midst of real reforms, Turkey still faced European prejudice and domestic criticism alike. With many Europeans questioning Turkey’s eligibility on religious or civilizational grounds, it was easy for Ankara to conclude that if their country was too big, too poor, and too Muslim for EU membership, being democratic wouldn’t make much difference. There was a particular sense of betrayal in 2004 when the AKP took a considerable political risk to back an unsuccessful peace plan on Cyprus. Cyprus rejected the plan, joined the EU anyway, and then become a vocal obstacle to Turkish membership.

During this period, Turkey’s nationalist opposition party took a revealing position on the subject of accession to the EU: The party platform supported it, but demanded membership “with honor.” The implication was that working to meet a series of EU benchmarks only to be met with continued rejection was a source of national humiliation. The deal that Turkey sealed with Europe last week represents the fantasy of membership with honor, a negotiation where Turkey was the one setting the terms. As one columnist described it: “Our prime minister said, ‘You know Turkey’s conditions and requests. Talk amongst yourselves and let me know.’ Then he went back to his hotel.”

Many countries have struggled to reconcile Western power, Western values, and Western hypocrisy. But, historically, Turkey’s unique geography has made that struggle particularly visible. A decade ago, when Turkish EU membership seemed like a real possibility, observers never tired of saying it would be the natural culmination of Turkey’s centuries-long quest to become European. But for a country that repeatedly faced the threat of involuntary incorporation into European empires, things were always more complicated than that. The challenge was setting Turkey on an equal footing with Europe militarily and economically. When it came to Europe’s professed democratic values, which Europe itself often seemed fairly indifferent too, the debate in Turkey has repeatedly turned on the question of whether these values might still be worth embracing for their own sake.

The first Ottoman parliament was formed in 1876, with a war against Russia looming, by Ottoman reformers eager to make the empire a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy. Additionally, some believed that this dramatic democratizing measure would help win them the support of democratic Britain in their military struggle. Two years later, though, with the war going poorly, Turkey’s new sultan decided that autocratic centralization offered a better path to preserving the empire than democracy. He dissolved the parliament — and nevertheless went on to enjoy continued diplomatic support from the British, who were eager to limit Russia’s gains for their own strategic ends at the time.

During the subsequent three decades, the empire continued to lose ground to its European foes, and many internal reformers concluded that the Sultan’s autocratic rule was part of the problem. In 1908, a group of military officers known as the Young Turks launched a Constitutional Revolution with the aim of reopening the Ottoman parliament — not because they expected Europeans to be impressed, but because they believed it would be a more effective form of government. But this democratic experiment would also prove short-lived. With the Ottoman armies struggling, and Bulgarian troops marching toward Istanbul, some of the revolutionaries decided that saving the empire required them to dispatch with the parliament and seize power themselves. They did not succeed: The Ottoman Empire was defeated and briefly partitioned by European states at the end of World War I.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk launched his famous campaign of modernizing reforms after first defeating the imperial powers occupying Anatolia. Ataturk had mixed feelings about democracy (as did many Europeans in the 1920s and 1930s). But he saw other Western ideals, particularly secularism, as universal values that would, among other things, strengthen Turkey’s ability to resist European colonization. Tellingly, though, Ataturk never spoke of “westernization,” but rather of bringing Turkey up to level of contemporary civilization. What’s more, he promoted a version of Turkish national history intended to prove that Turks had embraced, and even invented, many of these values before they had any contact with Europe at all.

In time, Turkey would come to embrace democracy on its own terms as well. After World War II, Turkish leaders once again sought Western support against the threat of a Russian invasion. While some believed that embracing democracy would help Turkey secure NATO membership, most of the country’s leadership, which had inherited control of the country from Ataturk, were confident that given the strategic situation, the U.S. government would be happy to cooperate with them while they continued to rule Turkey as a one-party state. All available evidence suggests that Washington would have been. As it happened, however, U.S. officials were as surprised as most Turks when Turkey’s president nonetheless decided to hold free elections and hand over power on his own personal initiative.

A half century later, the AKP under Erdogan has once again come around to the position that Turkey can get what it wants from the West without the need for real democratic change. In his own comments on the deal, Erdogan used the Brussels summit as an opportunity to lash out at what he saw as European hypocrisy on the question of terrorism. Following a bombing in Ankara last week that killed 27 civilians, the AKP moved ahead with efforts to arrest several leading Kurdish politicians and Erdogan declared his intention to target “terrorists without guns,” namely the journalists, academics, and NGO workers who are supporting Kurdish terrorists or criticizing his government’s counter-terror policy. Suggesting that Western leaders were responsible for Turkey’s terror problem, Erdogan said they would behave the same way in his situation. His argument rested on the assumption that the standards Europe held Turkey to were a fiction, rather than a sincere aspiration for Turkey, much less a sign of European superiority: “Turkey continues to carry out its battle with terrorism in a manner more democratic and more compatible with the rule of law than Western countries would when faced with a similar threat.” In a telling rhetorical flourish, Erdogan later said that in light of their hypocrisy, European statements about democracy, and freedom no longer meant anything for Turkey.

Today, Erdogan insists that European criticism of Turkey’s war on terror is motivated by indifference toward Turkey’s well-being, if not something worse. But when Erdogan and his party came to power a decade ago, they shared many of those same concerns about the heavy-handed war the Turkish military had been waging against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for two decades. Their motivation at the time was not appeasing the EU but rather bringing peace to their country; many party members sincerely believed that criminalizing Kurdish politics while seeking to crush the PKK militarily had been dangerously self-defeating. A decade ago it was Turkish military leaders arguing that talk of rights and liberties was simply a Western ploy to divide Turkey. Now that the AKP has committed itself to the military’s former strategy, it has also committed itself to the same cynical view of the West, which conveniently enables it to delegitimize Western criticism.

The concessions that Erdogan has secured from the EU over the refugee issue make it easier for him to argument that European criticism has always been more about pique than principle. At the same time, Erdogan’s eagerness to attack Western hypocrisy and prove that EU acceptance can be coerced inadvertently reveals that there is a domestic audience at home that’s not yet that cynical. Europe may prove willing to burnish Erdogan’s democratic credentials in return for help with its refugee problem. But as the last century suggests, European attitudes have been far less influential in making Turkey democratic than those of the Turkish people.

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Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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