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Western leaders discomfort with Turkey – and vice versa

The West used to see Turkey as a reliable ally. From the height of the Cold War to the heyday of the country’s EU accession negotiations in the late 2000s, the Turkish republic was seen as a strategic partner writes Marc Pirini.

But since the first direct presidential election in August 2014 and the two legislative elections in June and November 2015, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) successively lost and regained its parliamentary majority, Western perceptions of Turkey have darkened. Internally Turkey is in crisis, and externally it is at odds with almost every country of importance. This is a discomforting situation for Western leaders. Yet such will be the reality on both sides for the foreseeable future.

Long gone are the days when, after the AKP’s accession to power in 2002, Turkey was seen as the model Muslim country on its way to democracy. For about five years starting in 2005, the Turkish government efficiently absorbed parts of the EU’s acquis communautaire, the set of norms and standards that would ultimately align the country’s political and economic governance with the EU’s. This is no more the trend.

Today, Turkey’s foreign policy is dominated by tensions. The relationship with the EU is focused on a controversial deal on refugees to which Brussels and Ankara agreed on March 18. Serious divergences with the United States have occurred over the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria. The aftermath of a major military incident with Russia in November 2015, when a Russian bomber aircraft was shot down over Turkish air space, still reverberates. The rule of law and freedom of expression are bones of contention with both the EU and the United States.

Domestically, Turkey is engulfed in multiple crises, from the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency or anyone critical of the executive to disagreements about moves toward an executive presidency to unresolved allegations of corruption.

Against this complex background, recent incidents have left a bitter taste with Western leaders. The Turkish leadership, by its own admission, threatened in October 2015 to open the country’s border with Bulgaria to flows of refugees. On March 31, 2016, presidential bodyguards manhandled demonstrators and journalists in the heart of Washington, DC.

Given that Turkey has now distanced itself from the West in a number of ways, how the relationship will shape up in the coming months and years is an open question.

The prevailing Western view is that Turkey remains a strategic ally, be it on stemming the flow of refugees into the EU or on providing the U.S. Air Force with access to Turkish bases for U.S. tactical or strategic operations. The issue is now the political cost of such a strategic relationship for Western leaders: How much more aggravation are they ready to take from Turkey, and how far are they ready to compromise the principles on which their democratic nations rest for the sake of managing relations with Ankara?

Although Turkey’s president and parliament were democratically elected, ballot-box legitimacy has not translated into political stability. The AKP is attempting to undermine the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) under the guise of fighting terrorism. A resolute effort is being made to introduce an executive presidency, which 50 percent of voters opposed by opting for parties other than the AKP in the November 2015 parliamentary election. Stalled peace talks with the PKK will not be relaunched, and journalists and academics are harassed. Inevitably, such an authoritarian trend will make the West increasingly uncomfortable.

EU and U.S. leaders no longer hide their disapproval of the serious degradation of Turkey’s rule of law and freedom of expression. The same Western dissatisfaction goes for Turkish criticisms of European and U.S. diplomats posted in the country, even though the civil servants in question were acting according to their mandates and diplomatic rules. In recent days, U.S. President Barack Obama, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as a host of parliamentarians, have expressed their disapproval of current trends.

Some in Germany, however, hold different views. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on April 16 will visit Turkey for the third time in six months, recently labeled as “deliberately offensive” a satire of the Turkish president on German television. The network apologized, saying the broadcast was “slander,” and a Mainz prosecutor launched a case against the broadcaster. Some may fear that a Turkish-style interpretation of the rules on the freedom of expression will prevail in Germany in the future.

From a Turkish standpoint, the EU-Turkey deal on refugees has brought about an apparent intensification of relations and provided for spectacular media headlines. However, trouble may creep in from the implementation of the deeply controversial practice of returning asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey without Ankara so far fully applying the relevant UN convention.

The component of the same deal that offers visa-free travel for Turkish citizens traveling to EU countries might come under fire, and the notion of opening more chapters in Turkey’s EU accession process has been challenged. This hastily assembled edifice may start crumbling at one point or another, not only because some of the EU’s intended concessions will not be approved, but also because the largely cosmetic aspects of this relationship may diverge too much from reality.

Europeans will vote multiple times in 2016 and 2017—in a presidential election in France, in national parliament elections in seven EU member states, and in a referendum in the UK on that country’s EU membership. In each of these ballots, the refugee crisis and the deal with Turkey may play a role by boosting the performance of Euroskeptic movements. The political climate in Europe may well turn against Turkey, and tensions may appear within Europe, especially in the German governing coalition.

Conversely, the current political trend in Turkey is not leading to a harmonious rapprochement with the EU. The necessities of authoritarian politics run against upholding values similar to or compatible with those enshrined in Western political systems. There is now a profound incompatibility between the domestic political interests and leanings of Turkey’s leadership, on the one hand, and EU standards and NATO’s founding treaty, on the other.

Does all this mean a divorce between Turkey and the West? Most probably not. Just an unhappy, frustrating relationship, as both sides will continue to need each other. Expect troubled times ahead in Turkey’s relations with its Western partners.

Marc Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective. This article was first published by Carnegie europe. more information can be found at

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