Editor’s Note: Steven Blockmans is a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies, a think tank based in Brussels. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Authoritarian leaders do not simply come and go. And when they do go, they rarely go quietly.
The test of an autocrat like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan isn’t how he came to power, but how he treats critics, journalists, minorities, and whether his rule can go unchecked by constitutional limits.
Ever since April’s flawed referendum – in which a narrow majority of Turkish voters supported constitutional changes that would create an executive presidential system – any hope for the democratic removal of Erdoğan has gone.
The referendum result freed Erdogan’s hand to extend repression beyond the imprisonment of people linked to the Gülen movement, which allegedly masterminded the failed coup of July 2016.
In response to this, the European Union – which Turkey has been negotiating to become a full member of since 2005 – is now “reflecting on whether to cut and re-orient” pre-accession funding: money that nations receive in order to help meet the legal requirements of joining the bloc.
This is a potentially significant shift in strategy toward Turkey – a long-term key partner to the EU.
Yet the caution with which they proceed also reveals European leaders’ reluctance to damage cooperation on certain policy areas – from security to migration – the risk of which Erdoğan keeps reminding them.
The EU and Turkish authorities have been playing a game of chicken over which side will be the first to pull the plug on Turkey’s accession process.
Whether by deferring to the judgment of other international organizations or by waiting for Erdoğan to make good on his campaign bluster – to organize a “Trexit” referendum or worse, bring back the death penalty – the EU has ducked responsibility and lost credibility.
The EU should have already concluded that Turkey is in breach of the criteria for membership. It’s not hard to see that Erdoğan has crossed multiple red lines.
Rather than try to avoid aggravating an autocrat, the EU should stand behind its core values, terminate Turkey’s accession process and reset its bilateral relationship on a more credible and strategic footing.
At the same time, it should press Turkey on human rights and fund work with organizations in and outside the country to keep the flame of democracy alive.
There are a number of reasons that taking a harder line with Turkey is preferable to half-hearted talk about pulling pre-accession funding.
Partnership not membership
First, it is clear that after more than 12 years of trying, accession negotiations have produced the opposite of what was intended. The country’s regression in complying with the political criteria for EU membership has been well documented by the EU Commission.
Keeping up appearances in a dysfunctional accession process undermines the EU’s image as a soft power and as a beacon of democracy and rule of law.
True, its image has recently lost some of its shine as a result of illiberalism in member states like Hungary and Poland. Whilst working to remedy that situation internally, the EU should uphold the same core values and principles that underpin its policies externally. By terminating accession talks, it would send a clear message that the political criteria for membership are non-negotiable.
Second, the EU would set an important precedent in showing that the pre-accession track does not guarantee membership. This move should have a disciplining effect on other pre-accession countries in southeast Europe, where popular support for EU membership remains high but compliance with EU demands by the authorities has lagged behind.
Third, Turkey will remain a European country with a capacity to reapply for EU membership – if and when it is ready to accept the rules of the club.
While it is true that canceling accession negotiations would relieve the regime of any pretense of democracy, it would not kill the desire for reform that remains in parts of Turkey.
If the EU is seen to get tough with the regime while supporting any remaining political opposition, it will prove itself to be a more effective antidote to the authoritarian rule of President Erdoğan.
Finally, the EU should emancipate itself from the effective but reprehensible migration deal with Turkey. Leaders of key member states and EU institutions have inflated the importance of the deal, which human rights groups have described as a humanitarian disaster.
Relishing his position as kingmaker, Erdoğan has directly or indirectly threatened to suspend the agreement and allow 15,000 refugees to make their way to Europe every month.
Just as it was unwilling to be blackmailed by the same tactics of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, the EU should not allow itself to be held hostage by Mr. Erdoğan.
In the spirit of principled pragmatism, the EU should uphold its core values and take the opportunity to refashion a strategic partnership with Turkey around a number of issues that are of mutual interest.
These issues are: migration and the free movement of people (including visa-free travel if Turkey is willing to comply with EU conditions); counter-terrorism and regional security; energy; and the modernization of the customs union.
A transactional arrangement would inject a much-needed dose of realism into the flailing relationship.
But the EU should make it clear to Erdoğan that any future bilateral cooperation must go hand in hand with a reinvigorated human rights dialogue and continued EU support for civil society.
The EU must not abandon the nearly half of Turkey’s population who did not vote for the removal of separation of powers and with it, the codification of autocracy.