In January, the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan arrived to great fanfare in Brussels to promote Turkey’s EU accession bid. After a five-year hiatus, he was there to assure the EU of Turkey’s commitment to democratic principles, such as the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. On the same day, 96 Turkish judges and prosecutors were quietly “reassigned” from key positions, joining the thousands of police chiefs removed after the recent investigation into high-level corruption in Erdoğan’s closest circles. Two weeks later, the Turkish parliament passed a bill dramatically restricting internet freedom and privacy, despite widespread street protests and international condemnation. The bill has been widely viewed as an attempt to stop leaked phone recordings of the prime minister’s incriminating conversations with business associates circulating online. Turkey’s rapid spiral into unashamed tinpot dictatorship has received a mixed EU response. During Erdoğan’s Brussels visit, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy professed himself “confident” that Turkey would address the EU’s concerns over its meddling with judicial powers and even added a paternal note of encouragement: “We know how challenging some of the issues are that Turkey is now confronting, but I want to state very clearly that Turkey is not alone in this, and we stand ready to support you.”
If it were not for the fact that Brussels officials rarely jest, one might have suspected Van Rompuy of heavy sarcasm. Turkey needs very little help in its particular method of confronting “challenging issues”; its human and civil rights record, never pristine, has been deteriorating steadily since the Gezi Park protests of last June. No one believes that Turkey’s EU accession is forthcoming, although it is diplomatically correct to pretend it is. Erdoğan, despite the sham Brussels trip, seems increasingly unenthusiastic about the idea. In November 2013, at a public meeting with President Putin in St Petersburg, he declared that if Turkey were allowed full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (an alliance involving China, Russia and Central Asian states), he would be “saved the trouble” of continuing EU accession talks. On the opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin pronounced Turkey “Russia’s primary partner”, strengthening the impression of a power couple enjoying a heady romance. So why the EU charade? Aspiring to the EU has been useful for Turkey. First, it receives €700 million a year as an accession state. Second, and more importantly, the accession criteria demanded by the EU have served as useful grounds to change the Turkish balance of power. When the comically-named Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the military was a real threat to any government (especially theirs), and the EU supported the AKP’s efforts to minimise its political power through constitutional amendments. Now that the AKP has secured its power, it arguably needs the EU far less than before. It would not be wise to say that directly, however, hence the token Brussels visit.
The EU’s hollow paternalism towards Turkey is interspersed with occasional notes of censure, an awkward juggling act that just about keeps up the charade of Turkey joining the EU at some mythical future date. Last month Erdoğan received a somewhat chilly reception in Berlin from Angela Merkel, who was openly sceptical about Turkey ever achieving full EU membership; rather surprisingly, however, she did suggest opening new chapters for accession talks. The EU has traditionally opened chapters as a form of carrot-like encouragement, an attempt to coax Ankara into cleaning up its act. Once upon a time, it might have worked, but one look at Turkey today should be enough to convince anyone that drastic changes are needed before serious talks resume. The situation is getting embarrassing for both sides; unfortunately Erdoğan seems immune to embarrassment in these stricken times.