Tuesday, 19 July 2016

It's time for the EU to drop the Turkish accession charade

Whether the coup was real or staged, it is beyond time that the EU drop the pretence that Erdogan's Turkey will ever join the bloc.

As the implications of the events of Friday night have sunk in, world leaders have started to suggest what they dared not say over the weekend.

Since Friday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rounded up and arrested more than 6,000 members of the military and judiciary, accusing them of being involved in the supposed coup. "It looks at least as if something has been prepared," Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner from Austria, said today. "The lists [of people to arrest] are available, which indicates it was prepared and to be used at a certain stage."

"I'm very concerned. It is exactly what we feared," he added.

Hahn's words carry significance because he happens to be the commissioner for EU enlargement. He is directly responsible for Turkey's accession process to join the EU. But in realty, that process is as theatrical and illusory as Friday night's coup probably was (more on that below).

Erdogan's supporters have been clamouring for him to bring back the death penalty for the 'traitors'. The death penalty was abolished in Turkey in 2004 because that was a pre-condition for its EU membership talks to proceed. 

In response, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs said today, "Let me be very clear... no country can become an EU state if it introduces the death penalty."

But why wait till then to stop the accession process? It is now painfully clear that the charade of Turkish accession is causing more harm than good.

Exploited by European populists

This harm was in evidence during the Brexit campaign, when the Brexiteers claimed that Turkey was about to join the EU in the next ten years, resulting in hordes of Turks descending upon England. The people spreading this lie surely knew that that what they were saying was untrue, especially Defense Minister Penny Mordaunt who told the BBC's Andrew Marr, with a straight face, that there was nothing the UK could do to stop Turkey from joining.

It was a particularly egregious lie because, not only does the UK absolutely have an iron-clad veto over Turkish accession, it is also virtually the only country in the EU that is pushing for Turkish accession.

France and Germany are both vehemently opposed. But the accession process is kept open at the behest of the UK and US, as a way of influencing Turkish policy and keeping it on side with the West. Everyone in Brussels knows that Turkey will never be part of the EU, or at least not in our lifetimes. 

As I've written before, the reason is to do with size. If Turkey joined in ten years it would be the largest member state in the union. It would like asking the United States to take on Mexico as the 51st state. 

It's never going to happen. By holding out the prospect, the UK and US have hoped to maintain some influence over Turkey. But how much is this process actually having an influence on Erdogan's behaviour?

The key test will be whether the EU's words of caution will have any effect on Erdogan's brutal crackdown in the coming days, as he solidifies his Islamist regime's grip on power. He may stop just short of reimposing the death penalty. But why should this be the EU's only red line?

The spectre of Turkish accession was exploited by the Brexiteers. Unless the EU ends this charade, it will be exploited by other populists across Europe in the coming months and years - particularly by Marine Le Pen in next year's French presidential election.

With the accession talks open, it was very difficult for the Brexit remain camp, and for journalists like myself, to explain that Turkey is not actually going to be an EU member state. On paper, it is slated to join. The confusion is understandable. Why not end it?

Turkey's Reichstag fire

On the night of the coup I was out at a bar here where I live, in the Neukolln area of Berlin. It's a predominantly Turkish area, and so when Erdogan called on the people to rise up and demonstrate against the supposed military coup, they were out in force.

Walking home, I was struck by the way the Turkish bars and shops had set up TVs outside for people to sit and watch the live developments from Ankara and Istanbul. Most of them were rooting for Erdogan, as he remains very popular with the lower-educated part of the Turkish diaspora here.

Those outdoor viewing spots were set up in exactly the same way they were during Euro 2016 for Turkish soccer games. This was indeed a spectacle, and it seemed designed for public consumption. 

The suspicious circumstances around the coup have drawn comparisons to the 1933 Reichstag fire in Berlin, in which Adolph Hitler used a fire in the parliament set by an unemployed bricklayer as evidence that communists were trying to overthrow the government. It was a pivotal moment in the establishment of Nazi Germany, and most historians believe that the Nazis set the fire themselves as a false flag operation.

Every Turkish person I know, both in Europe and in Turkey, has told me there is something very strange about the supposed coup on Friday night. Here's what the events of Friday looked like to a Turkish friend of mine who lives in Brussels:
"Turkey is not a country that is a stranger to military rule or coups. It supposedly has the 2nd largest army in NATO and the 8th strongest in the world. I come from a family with strong historical roots in the Turkish army. The commanders and generals of Turkish army are not bullshit academics, they are trained in strategy and see much action during their lifetime.
The Turkish army knows how to set up a coup d'etat and has practical experience carrying it out successfully many times in recent history. The army officials would hence know that you cannot make a coup at 10PM at night when people are preparing to enjoy their friday summer-night out, with 3 F16s, 5 tanks, a few helicopters and a mere 1000 infantry in a country of 76 million people. You don't need army training to know that fact. 
A real coup would have known where Erdogan and other politicians were and wouldn't have allowed them to be live on the TV screen the entire night. A real coup would have never bombed the Parliament, to which they have their historical allegiance, but the Palace of Erdogan! 
This was the biggest Turkishwood play staged to date."
Of course, those people tend to be well-educated. My working class Turkish neighbors here in Neukolln clearly don't feel that way, given the pro-Erdogan demonstrations that have taken place here.

I'm certainly no expert on Turkey, but here's what I think happened. Erdogan identified a low-level element of the military that wanted to stage a coup - a coup they knew would fail. The Turkish secret service and police, which he now controls, worked to stoke the rebellion. They perhaps gave them false information about when and where to stage the coup. And, perhaps, it was Erdogan's forces who set off the bomb at the parliament as the failed coup was unfolding.

The coup plotters wouldn't have realised they were walking into a trap. And it appears that many of the soldiers under them didn't even realize they were participating in a coup.

The seemingly unnecessary circling around Istanbul by Erdogan's plane during the crisis would have just added to the spectacular display, meant to terrify the population and convince them that the only alternative to Erdogan is chaos. The display would have also been meant for us here in the West, to show us we must accept Erdogan's dismantling of Turkish democracy or face a power vacuum.

End the charade

Either way, whether this is a case of Erdogan exploiting an unforseen coup or staging a spectacle designed to look like a coup, his intentions now seem clear. He is erasing whatever shreds of a democratic society were left in the country.

How can the EU continue to hold the accession talks open in such a situation? It will be difficult enough to justify Turkey's continued membership in NATO. That, however, is a decision for the Americans. Given the Syrian War and Russian threats, it seems inconceivable that they would expel the country from the military alliance, no matter how brutal Erdogan's regime becomes.

The EU is not in the same situation. Holding these talks open seems to be having no tangible effect on Erdogan's behaviour. But it is providing easy anti-EU ammunition for populists in Europe. 


Anonymous said...

I completely agree. But I think the pressure from the United States is too much for the EU to end the accession talks. As worried as people are about the direction Turkey is going in, they're afraid to see it go much faster in that direction if it loses its Western moorings

Leander said...

How could it go any faster in that direction than it is going right now???