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The Ankara-Brussels problem

“Brussels, you’ve got a problem,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s spokesperson said recently writes Marc Pierini. Based on facts and rule of law principles, many Europeans have a hard time understanding what the problem is, exactly, and what the way forward might be. Here is my modest attempt to arrive at a mutual understanding.

In the immediate aftermath of the July 15 failed coup attempt, EU leaders strongly condemned this violent attack on democracy and confirmed their support to Turkey’s elected parliament, president, and government. Official statements issued by the German Chancellor, the French Foreign Minister, the President of the European Commission, President of the European Council, and EU High Representative, the EU High Representative and European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy, the European Parliament President, as well as those from the Council of Europe and NATO, were loud, clear, and unambiguous. These are the facts. Whether they are received, ignored, or transformed by Turkish politicians and media does not alter the fact that EU leaders strongly came to defense of democracy in Turkey, as they always do.

Yet six weeks after this manifestation of political solidarity a deluge of criticism by Turkish leaders, media, and citizens against the EU continues unabated. There is the worldwide conspiracy version, the academic version (i.e. the EU “betrays its values and principles,”) and the common version (i.e. that the EU has “failed the empathy test,” has “disappointed” Turkey, and is “ambiguous.”)

As convenient as it may be in times of fierce nationalist narratives, transforming the failed coup into a “test” that the EU (and the West in general) has “failed” doesn’t hold water. The EU and the West didn’t undergo a “test” at all. The attempted coup was a vicious attack by Turks against Turks. It resulted in a massive destabilization of the country, its armed forces, its state institutions in general, and its international prestige. This was a self-engineered disaster and, in its aftermath, the EU and the West immediately showed their solidarity with Turkey.

More importantly, on substance, genuine differences now exist between Turkey and EU leaders on the way forward.

Right now, Turkey is telling the world that the Gülen movement is behind the coup. This is plausible. It is important that solid evidence and a thorough enquiry show whether this was in fact the case. For the time being, Western diplomacies may recall that not too long ago, and until December 2013, AKP ministers and Gülenist organizations were working hand-in-hand toward the same religious-conservative societal project. Gülenist organizations were always treated with great caution by the West because the movement was secret and its governance, membership, and financing unknown. However, Western diplomats occasionally came across Gülenists at the behest of AKP ministers, who promoted some Gülen members as the privileged interlocutors of visiting foreign dignitaries. In other words, let’s not forget that the AKP’s arch-enemy today was its closest ally yesterday.

Concerning post-coup corrective measures, the issue as seen from Brussels (i.e. from a rule of law perspective) is whether an endless purge of the opposition, more political populism, more societal polarization, and more governmental autocracy constitute the best way to fight a “Gülenist infiltration in the Turkish state.” If the objective is to root out a secret faction, is this goal attainable by antagonizing all other sectors of society, by pitting Turks against one another, by creating “traitors’ cemeteries,” and by publishing denunciation websites? It seems to me, as a keen foreign observer, that injecting more hatred into a diverse and now shaken Turkish society is a recipe for more trouble down the road, rather than an appeasement. I would contend that only a transparent and democratic reconstruction process in Turkey can succeed, one that reinstates press freedom, an independent judiciary, a free economy, a vibrant civil society, and cultural diversity.

These are the parameters within which the EU can help. It is comforting to note that many Turkish political voices, in opposition parties such as the CHP and the HDP, but also within the AKP itself, support a balanced approach to the country’s post-coup reconstruction. Beyond current emotions, Turks will hopefully find a common denominator: to defend the unity of the state and a genuine democratic process. The EU strongly supports such principles.

A recurrent line of criticism coming from Ankara nowadays is the lack of empathy and support the country receives from European leaders. EU leaders were asked to come to Turkey. They do. This week, Estonian, German, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, and Slovenian ministers, the Chairman of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, as well as several senior officials from the European Commission and European External Action visited Turkey to convey their solidarity with the country’s legitimate institutions and the reinforcement of the rule of law. The in-and-out visit of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on August 24 carried the same message.

Turks may realize that there is a diplomatic choice to be made here: either continuously dish out harsh criticism of the EU and the West and reap some temporary domestic political benefits; or tone down the rhetoric and start discussing real issues between partners with respect for each other. This choice may not be the easiest given the intensely emotional and violent events that Turkey has gone through, but it is the one worth pursuing for the country’s future.

Between Turkey and the EU, priority issues for discussion include, as a start: Syria, counterterrorism cooperation, the implementation of the refugee assistance program in Turkey, the modernization of the customs union, and ongoing civil society cooperation (including educational and cultural programs such as the Jean Monnet Scholarships.)

There is plenty of common work to be done between Brussels and Ankara. Let’s hope that both sides can find as much common ground.

Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. This article was first published by “Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe”. Which is published under the auspices of Carnegie Europe. More in formation can be found at

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