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Transatlantic Take

Turkey and the West: Is Thinking Beyond Conjuncture Possible?

The situation in Turkey is becoming unacceptable from a Western liberal perspective.

The situation in Turkey is becoming unacceptable from a Western liberal perspective. The emergency rule adopted after the coup attempt on July 15 is still in place and is  increasingly used against institutions and individuals not connected to the Gülen Movement (criminalized under the name Fetullah Terrorist Organization) that is believed to be behind the failed putsch.

Over 70 journalists have been arrested during the emergency rule, bringing the total number of members of the press imprisoned in Turkey to above 140. Some of the journalists targeted are known to have been critical of the Gülen Movement, even in the days when the Turkish government had an alliance of convenience with them. Kadri Gürsel, columnist at the prominent Turkish daily Cumhuriyet and Board Member of International Press Institute, had said “there is good journalism and there is bad journalism, but journalism is not a crime” before being arrested on charges of giving a subliminal message to incite revolt in one of his columns. In today’s Turkey, basic journalism is in fact being criminalized. Pressure on media through imprisonment, tax penalties, denying advertisement revenues, government takeovers, and mob attacks have finally cowed the mainstream media in Turkey into submission.

Left-wing and pro-Kurdish activists and politicians are also being targeted. Large numbers of left-wing individuals who are as distant from the Gülen Movement as possible have been suspended from their jobs in the post-coup purges. Moreover ten members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party have been arrested alongside several elected mayors, who are now replaced by trustees, on grounds of membership to the PKK terrorist organization.

The governing AKParty is also teaming up with the Eurosceptic Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to reinstate the death penalty, which could be the final nail on the coffin of Turkey’s European Union accession process. The leader of MHP has also agreed to support the AKParty bid to initiate a referendum on a transition to a presidential system. While the draft of the proposed system is not yet finalized or public, there are early signs that political power will be concentrated at the presidency without a functioning checks and balances system. But even without a new system, Turkey’s institutions are eroding and political power is becoming personalized.

The U.S. position toward these developments has been muddled by the elections and will remain unclear until the new administration starts governing. However, generally speaking, Turkey’s popularity in Washington, DC is at historical lows these days. Meanwhile, there is a growing tendency in the EU to suspend Turkey’s accession negotiations. The European Parliament will vote on a resolution suggesting the suspension of negotiations with Turkey on Thursday, November 24. Western disengagement from Turkey based on the current conjuncture would have detrimental long term consequences. Turkey has managed to correct negative courses in the past, through Western engagement, not disengagement. Some make the analogy of Turkish democracy moving in a band with lower and upper limits with an upward long-term trend line. Around 2005, driven by the launching of the accession negotiations with the EU, Turkey almost broke the upper limit which could have turned Turkey into an advanced democracy. EU mismanagement of Turkey’s accession process was one of the factors that turned the momentum around, and now Turkish democracy is headed toward the lower limit. Turkish democracy could not break the upper limit in 2005, but it might break the lower limit if the West disengages now. The result would be disastrous for Turkey, and damaging for the United States and the EU.

This is not to say that the United States and EU should turn a blind eye to what is going on in Turkey or try to appease the government, but they should try to contain Turkey’s democratic backslide. The transactional approach which both the United States and EU have lately adopted in relations with Turkey is not helping. The United States should develop a consistent Turkey policy rather than approaching Turkey as part of other policy areas and make a stronger case for why Turkey’s democratic credentials are truly important for this strategy. Likewise, EU member states should end “constructive ambiguity” on the prospects for Turkey’s membership. Rather than disengaging from Turkey, the EU member states should determine the most attractive, but also realistic, place they can offer Turkey at the EU table, even if not today. Only with a clear and honest offer in hand can the EU have an impact in Turkey. Nothing less than the capacity of the EU to play a transformative role in its neighborhood may be at stake.

While the state of liberal democracy in United States and EU is worrying, in Turkey it is alarming. The stakes are high and complacency is dangerous. This moment, if mishandled, could define Turkey’s future and, at the very least, deprive the transatlantic community a valuable ally.