Once praised as a model for
democratizing countries in the region, Turkey is now making headlines for
election fraud and jailing political opponents. As Turkey prepares for its
general elections on June 24 under state of emergency conditions, the results
will be unlikely to loosen the grip President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has held on
power since 2002.
Turkey’s sharp turn towards
authoritarianism raises a fundamental question about the supposed democratizing
effect of liberal democracies on transitioning states. Turkey has strong
institutional and economic ties to Europe. For more than a generation, the
prospect of European Union (EU) membership provided the primary push behind
many political reforms instituted in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish
citizens have brought their cases before the European Court of Human Rights
(ECtHR), an institution designed to protect individuals against state
sharp turn towards authoritarianism raises a fundamental question about the
supposed democratizing effect of liberal democracies on transitioning states.
These days, however, as dissidents in
Turkey are under siege by an oppressive government, they can no longer count on
Europe as an ally. I suggest here that Turkey is still vulnerable to
pressure from Europe. However, Europe is incapable of summoning the will to
promote democracy and human rights, as its own populations clamour for the same
kind of aggressive right-wing populism that threatens to rend Turkey
What went wrong with Turkey’s relations
with Europe? Can Europe no longer exert a positive influence on Turkey’s
What went wrong?
The deteriorating conditions in
Turkey first commanded international attention during the Justice and
Development Party (AKP) government’s violent suppression of the Gezi protests
in 2013, although Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate power by eliminating
opponents in different segments of the state – the judiciary, the military, the
police force – dates even
Turkey’s relations with Europe soured
especially after the 2016 coup attempt. When the governments of Germany and the
Netherlands blocked Erdogan from holding referendum campaign events in their
respective countries, Erdoğan responded by publicly accusing his European
counterparts of Nazi-like behavior. The Netherlands officially
withdrew its ambassador from Turkey due to the impasse. Meanwhile,
Erdogan’s domestic speeches began veering violently away from fundamental
liberal rights, rallying crowds for the return of capital punishment
despite its ban in all Council of Europe member states. In response,
the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe voted to resume monitoring
Turkey’s democratic status, a supervisory role which it had relaxed in
Turkey’s gleeful flouting of Europe
has proved politically useful to a regime that fancies itself victim to dark
forces from all sides. To suggest, however, that Turkey is ready to sever its
relations with Europe outright would be overhasty. While Erdoğan may be
positioning himself as a regional leader in the Middle East, Turkey is in no
condition to turn away from Europe.
Despite the Turkish government’s
hostile rhetoric, the popular support in Turkey for joining the EU is on the rise, from 61.8 percent in 2015 to
78.9 percent in 2017, indicating that Erdoğan cannot easily afford to close the
door on Europe.
More importantly, the EU holds
significant leverage over Turkey as the country’s number one investor and trading partner. This
leverage becomes greater as the Turkish economy continues its recent downturn.
The Turkish lira has plummeted to record levels against foreign currency in
the past few months and Moody’s downgraded Turkey’s credit rating due to
the country’s widening current account deficit. The Turkish economy’s
dependence on hot money leaves it especially vulnerable to decreasing
confidence on the part of foreign investors, such as the 19 per cent decrease in foreign investment in
2017. Against this background – perhaps not surprisingly – Deputy Prime
Minister Recep Bozdağ recently reaffirmed Turkey’s aim to join the EU in
the next five years. The Turkish lira has plummeted to record levels against foreign currency
in the past few months.
Strained relations notwithstanding,
Europe still has significant power and influence over Turkey. While European
institutions have directed harsh criticisms against Turkey’s accelerated
de-democratization after the 2016 coup attempt, they fell short of taking any
meaningful action to pressure the government.
Turkey’s democratization is no longer
a priority for Europe
Over the past two years, the EU has
expressed concern after concern regarding the erosion of human rights and the
rule of law in Turkey. The last EU progress report on Turkey warns against the sweeping powers granted
to the president in the 2017 constitutional referendum, the arrest and
dismissal of hundreds of thousands of individuals by executive decrees, the
suppression of dissent under state of emergency, the removal of safeguards
against torturing suspects under police custody, and many more issues.
Some EU lawmakers have called
for a formal halt of Turkey’s membership negotiations.
The primary concern of pro-sanction groups within the EU, unfortunately, is not
Turkey’s democratization. Instead, the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim
sentiment is driving the opponents of Turkey’s EU accession. For instance,
Austria, Turkey’s most vocal opponent in the EU, is now led by a
right-wing coalition taking a hard line against Muslims in the country. The
coalition partner, the Freedom Party (ÖVP), is especially disconcerting
for its Nazi roots. The far-right populist
leaders’ wide appeal not only threaten the future of liberal democracies in
Europe, but also prevent Europe from being able to anchor democratization in
rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is driving the opponents of
Turkey’s EU accession.
Closing all doors on Turkey’s
accession to the EU, however, is not the only option. Given Turkey’s foreign
debt dependence, economic sanctions could pose a serious threat against
Erdogan’s unshaken grasp on power. In the run up to the general elections in
Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel bowed to pressure on the left and right by
offering to impose economic sanctions. Merkel’s election promise foreshadowed
the 105 million Euros the European Parliament decided to cut in Turkey’s financial
assistance last November.
Compared with the €9 billion Turkey
is set to receive in pre-accession financial assistance between 2007 and 2020,
this decision is too little, too late. A recent audit of EU’s financial assistance
to Turkey bluntly states that billions of Euros of EU funding spent on Turkey’s
democratization and anti-corruption reforms have largely failed. The report
lays bare the fact that the EU Commission continued to fund Turkey despite the
continued unsatisfactory outcomes and lack of political will by Turkish
authorities to reverse the trend. As it stands now, the EU is funding the
entrenchment of one-man rule in Turkey. As it stands now, the EU is funding the
entrenchment of one-man rule in Turkey.
The EU, however, has other
priorities, namely to ensure the smooth execution of the immigration deal with
Turkey. In 2016, Merkel played a leading role in crafting a deal with Turkey to
ensure that Syrian refugees illegally entering the EU through the Turkish-Greek
border would be returned to Turkey. In return, the EU promised to deliver €6 billion to Turkey, half of which has
already been dispersed.
The deal is clearly not motivated by
humanitarian considerations. Thousands of refugees are kept in inhuman conditions in overcrowded
refugee camps in Greece and Turkey routinely resorts to violence, even shooting at refugees illegally crossing the border,
to secure its Syrian border. EU officials may declare that Turkey is
taking “huge strides away from the EU”, nonetheless,
there seems to be a tacit understanding that the EU will not impose any
substantive sanctions under current circumstances.
Backlash against the ECtHR arrested
its power and influence
The European Court of Human Rights’
(ECtHR) passive response to the systemic human rights violations in Turkey is
perhaps more disconcerting than that of the EU. In its recent decisions, the
ECtHR dismissed major cases from Turkey on technical grounds.
Most prominently, the Court rejected
applications of individuals banned from public service by executive decrees
under the state of emergency, on account of their failure to exhaust domestic
remedies – a necessary requirement to take a case to the ECtHR. The Court’s
response blocked potential applications by 150,000 workers who lost their jobs
and do not even have access to their retirement benefits. The ECtHR’s
presumption that the Turkish state is equipped to handle these cases
impartially within a reasonable timeframe evidently contradicts all other reports by the EU and the Council of Europe.
In another landmark case, the Court
dismissed an application submitted by the main opposition party, the
Republican People’s Party (CHP), concerning the constitutional referendum.
The referendum was widely criticized by international observers – including
a Council of Europe institution – for possible
election fraud, severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms and access to
information, and the undemocratic nature of the constitutional amendments. Once
again, the ECtHR did not engage with the substance of the claim, but dismissed
it on grounds that referendums do not qualify as elections and hence fall
outside of the purview of the ECtHR’s jurisdiction. The ECtHR dismissed it on grounds
that referendums do not qualify as elections and hence fall outside of the
purview of its jurisdiction.
The ECtHR’s conservative
interpretation in these cases poses a stark contrast to its previous approach
to cases from Turkey. When presented with systemic human rights violation
claims in the 1990s, the ECtHR lifted the exhaustion of domestic remedies requirement on
account of the state’s complicity in the crimes and its unwillingness to
provide due process to victims. In yet another case from Turkey in 2008, the Court
overturned its previous case law to regard workers’ right to collective
bargaining as a fundamental human right.
When the Court’s response to cases
from Turkey is viewed in light of the Court’s narrow interpretation in cases from
other countries, it appears that the ECtHR’s activist days are over. Recent
research, indeed, shows that the ECtHR has become more conservative in its
judgments in the past few years. This new data corroborates the insights of
other scholars who accuse the Court of showing increased deference to member states and
avoiding contentious political issues.
In recent years, a popular backlash
against the Court has materialized into political pressure by member states.
Some member states have threatened outright noncompliance or leaving the ECtHR
system. In the UK, for instance, the Euroskepticism that eventually led to
Brexit was also sparked by ECtHR rulings on issues such as immigrants’ rights
and the right of prisoners to vote. Most recently, states have taken steps to
impose new protocols on the Court to be more lenient on member states in its
judgments. These recent developments indicate that the ECtHR is struggling with
self-preservation, and hence is no longer able to intervene in the Turkish
government’s crackdown on dissent.
A dim future for Turkey and Europe
The rise of the European far right is
haunting the effectiveness and impartiality of the ECtHR. The recent
developments not only undermine the ECtHR’s ability to deliver remedies to
aggrieved victims in Turkey, but also damage the legitimacy of the Court as the
protector and guarantor of human rights in Europe at large.
The EU’s ability to pressure Turkey
on democratization and human rights has been arrested on multiple
fronts. As long as the humanitarian crisis in Syria continues, the EU will be
less willing to exert influence over Turkey, while Turkey will be better
equipped to shield itself from any attempts. Just as western powers have
established alliances with other authoritarian states like Egypt or petrostates
like Saudi Arabia, EU-Turkey relations are likely to evolve into a strategic
partnership. Given the authoritarian path on which the Turkish government is
barrelling, it is not likely that European institutions will be able
to reverse the trend in the near future without an unexpected change in
the domestic balance of power. What is most worrisome to those who would oppose
Erdogan’s flagrant violation of the rule of law, they no longer seem to have
allies in Europe.