Cold Turkey for Twitter

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Turkey vs. Twitter. Khalid Abaih, March 2014. [Flickr]

Turkey’s ban on social media shows the need for an upgrade of EU-Turkey trade relations, write Hosuk Lee-Makiyama and Bert Verschelde

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama and Bert Verschelde are a Director and Research Associate respectively at the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) in Brussels

When international media report on human rights transgressions in Turkey, the underlying question tends to be the same. Does Turkey want to be a part of Europe – with minority rights, open debate and the rule of law – or is it destined for another geography? Turkey has now taken another step away from Europe, as its courts have taken the decision to shut down Twitter.

The government has tightened its control over the Internet through amending an existing regulation, in order to stop the online spread of incriminating evidence and leaks related to a corruption scandal Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is embroiled in.

The shutdown follows a long tradition of politically motivated censorship in Turkey – its courts have already blocked YouTube for several years on the grounds of “sufficient suspicion” of criminal activity. For Brussels, the new Internet law is just another sign that Turkey is veering further off its course towards EU membership. European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle ironically voiced his concerns on Twitter. The EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Catherine Ashton, underlined the need for Turkey to engage in early consultations with the EU on all laws related to its accession criteria, including human rights.

The EU’s criticism over the last weeks has fallen on deaf ears in Ankara, and that should not come as a surprise. The mainstay of Europe’s strategic influence in its neighborhood is the prospect of a membership of the Union, or preferential access to its internal market. Herein lies Europe’s big foreign policy dilemma. While protesters on Maidan square took to arms against Moscow to defend Ukraine’s trade agreement with the EU, Turkey’s accession has been blocked by key EU members, and has been in a dead-end for decades. So is Europe’s influence in Ankara. 

Turkey is in a customs union with Europe, a trade-pact that was sold in 1995 as a compromise in lieu of a full EU membership. While the customs union provides duty-free market access for Turkish manufactures, it has also become a source of increasing tensions. This union forces Turkey to blindly accept the outcome of trade agreements that the EU concludes with third countries, without reaping any of the benefits, or having a seat at the negotiation table. Meanwhile, the EU is orchestrating more than a dozen trade negotiations – including with the United States, Japan, North Africa and much of South East Asia – many of whom are direct competitors to the vested interests in Ankara’s economic policy. 

While the benefits of the customs union were substantial at the time, they are relatively obsolete by the standards of today’s hyper-connected economies and trade agreements that cover investment, services and e-commerce. Turkey therefore desires deeper and more comprehensive market access to the Single Market, as countries like Korea, Canada and Singapore have already negotiated through their trade agreements with the EU. The other side of that coin is that today, Brussels has the same chances of cajoling Turkey into changing its Internet restrictions as it does China. In fact, the EU could not even open proceedings against Turkey without relying on the World Trade Organization. Moreover, the EU is increasingly restricting the Internet on the same pretext as Turkey.

To keep up with current standards of trade liberalization, Ankara will inevitably demand a free trade agreement with Europe to replace its defunct customs union. Such a move would spell the end of the illusion of Turkey being allowed to join the EU in the short term. But as difficult as it is for Brussels to admit policy failures, a separate trade agreement would secure market access for the Internet and other services. In return, the EU would have to permit freedom of movement for Turkish professionals – which may be too high a price for certain immigration-restrictive EU Member States. 

A Turkish proverb, attributed to the Persian poet Rumi, goes: “Words are pretexts. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another” – and the bond between Ankara and Brussels could already be gone. Like Ukraine, Turkey has clear alternatives to closer ties with Europe. As Ankara deals with the fall-out of the US Fed’s tapering, it is turning to its sworn historical enemy, Russia, to negotiate cheaper gas prices. For a much needed modernization of its armed forces, Turkey, a founding NATO member, has already opened the door to Chinese suppliers. The real question is not where Turkey belongs, but whether Europe will let it drift further away.