Don’t leave Turkey with Erdogan

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

CHP office. Schaerbeek, 30 October. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

On 1 November, Turkey will re-run its general election, as political parties, namely the Justice and Development Party (AKP), have been unable to form a coalition government since the general election in June.

Joern Richert is Assistant Professor for Energy Governance at @IPW_HSG and EGI, @HSGStGallen.

This election takes place in turbulent and unpleasant times. The atmosphere in Turkey has declined since the 2013 Gezi protests, and associated incidents of police brutality. A corruption scandal shook the country in late 2013, and led to the fall of three ministers, and mass replacements of police and judiciary personnel. In May 2014, the opposition was hopeful that it could topple Erdo?an’s AKP in the country’s municipal election. However, this turned out not to be the case.

Three months later, Erdo?an became Turkey’s first directly-elected president,  and accelerated his campaign to transform Turkey into a presidential system. Erdo?an’s increasingly majoritarian aspirations are stoking fears that Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarian, and are seen critically even by many within the AKP.

Since the June elections, the situation has dramatically worsened. Critics accuse President Erdo?an of playing a cynical game. By waging war against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), so they say, he was trying to scare people into rallying behind him and the AKP. Conflicts with the PKK escalated after a bombing on 20 July of Kurdish activists, apparently by the Islamic State, in the Turkish town of Suruç, close to the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey responded by bombing IS positions in Syria, and the PKK in northern Iraq. While the PKK retaliated with attacks in Turkey, nationalist mobs set fire to offices of the Kurdish progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Violence reached a climax on 10 October, when over 100 pro-Kurdish activists were killed in a double bombing in Ankara. 

The 1 November election will not improve matters. It is unlikely to deliver Erdo?an the presidential system he wants. The two-thirds majority he needs to tackle constitutional reform seems out of reach, and it is unclear if the AKP will reach the absolute majority it is striving for. It is very likely Erdo?an will continue his fight for a Presidential system through other means, which are unlikely to bring peace to Turkey.

Turkey is in for a bumpy ride, and it is unclear where the journey will end. For the West, this situation makes it easy to lose faith in Turkey, argues Joern Richert.

Leaving Turkey alone with Erdo?an, however, is strategically dangerous and morally wrong. It is on the frontier of the energy and migration debates, regardless of the outcome of the election, that Turkey will continue to play a crucial role. 

Turkey presents the only landlocked alternative to gas supplies from Russia. The European Commission has long highlighted the importance of the so-called Southern Corridor that should connect Europe with natural gas from Azerbaijan, and potentially beyond. In the coming years, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline will start delivering up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually to Europe. This cannot wholly substitute Russian imports, but future pipeline expansions could present a real energy alternative for Europe.

In terms of migration, Turkey is just as important. It hosts an estimated two million mainly Syrian refugees, and is thought to have spent around seven billion euros on its migration policies since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The recent visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Turkey, as well as the new migration “Action Plan” between the EU and Turkey, acknowledges its strategic importance.

Losing faith in Turkey would not only be a strategic mistake. It is also morally wrong. Last year’s German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey showed that in times of crisis, Turks increasingly turn to the EU. In 2012, 44% and in 2013, 45% of respondents favored EU membership. This jumped to 53% in 2014 after internal turmoil intensified.

A 2015 Pew survey showed 55% of participants favoring EU accession.  A closer look at the demographics behind this revealed that it is young, educated, and secular Turks that are dissatisfied with their country and are looking to Europe for solutions (dissatisfaction among 18-29 year olds stood at 60%, and at 63% among those with a secondary education).

These numbers show the attractiveness of Europe, but they also imply a moral obligation. The orientation towards the West has been a major principle of the Turkish Republic since its inception. Since the 1950s, Europe and Turkey successively negotiated further integration. These led to a customs union in 1995, and the official start of EU accession negotiations in 2005. This long history of dialogue has invoked the promise that Turkey might become an integral part of Europe. It has shaped the context in which the generation of highly educated, young, and Western-oriented individuals developed.

This Gezi generation is an important part of Turkey, and Europe has played a vital role in its upbringing. The 2013 Gezi outburst was a sign that it is increasingly critical of Turkey’s course. As this generation finds it increasingly difficult to find a place in Turkish society, it is Europe’s obligation not to close the door on them. Even though Turkey’s EU membership might seem out of reach, Europe thus needs to find a pragmatic approach to support those who look towards Europe with hope and sympathy.

The visa liberalisations that are discussed in the context of the current migration action plan present a great opportunity to reach out to the Gezi generation. Visa liberalisation will firstly benefit the young, mobile, and educated (multilingual) Turks. It should therefore not only be seen as a bargaining chip in the sometimes rather cynical ‘migration game’, but as a means to live up to Europe’s moral obligation towards these young Turks.

Visa liberalisation would help to ensure continuing ties between Europe and the Turkish civil society. It can strengthen the Western-oriented parts of Turkish society. In the long run, it might thereby even help to make Turkey a more stable, peaceful, and prosperous European partner.

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