After a five-year hiatus, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will start a visit to Brussels on Jan. 21 upon the invitation of European Council President Herman van Rompuy in an attempt to boost Turkey’s European Union application. The visit has been scheduled to keep the momentum going after the EU’s General Affairs Council agreed in October — after a three-year freeze — to open a new chapter in the accession process, and after the sides agreed in December on the principles of a visa liberalization timeline. This occurred before Turkey's graft probe became public on Dec. 17.
Since the corruption scandal broke into the open, Erdogan has hit back sharply by removing and reassigning about 2,000 police officers and a dozen prosecutors who were directly or indirectly involved in the probe. Erdogan has also attempted to make changes in the constitution, thus creating an image problem — both domestically and internationally — that the government is trying to cover up corruption and bribery. In October, the EU's Turkey progress report had drawn attention to the country's deteriorating human rights record, particularly concerning Erdogan’s response to the May-June Gezi Park protests. The report stated that Erdogan’s method of governance poses a problem as it has increased the country's polarization instead of being constructive.
“This translated into an understanding of democracy as relying exclusively on a parliamentary majority, rather than a participative process in which all voices are heard, and finally in an uncompromising stance in the face of dissent and a failure to protect fundamental rights and freedoms. This was exemplified in late May and early June, when police used excessive force in response to a major wave of protests,” the European Commission said in the report. “The excessive use of force by police and the overall absence of dialogue during the protests in May/June have raised serious concerns.” The report added, “This underlines the urgent need for further reforms and promotion of dialogue across the political spectrum, and in society more broadly, as well as for respect of fundamental rights in practice.”
The troubles did not stop in June. Police use of excessive force continues to be a problem; such incidents have been occurring a few times a week since. People’s attempts to exercise their right to assemble and express their opinions have been met by police violence almost every time. For example, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd that gathered at Taksim Square in Istanbul to protest the government’s new draft bill to restrict access to certain websites and to keep a log of all web users — as if Big Brother is watching and recording them, violating their privacy.
As there is a growing concern about the vitality of Turkey’s democracy and its human rights record, there is also strong speculation as to whether there is anything left to speak about when it comes to the country’s accession talks with the EU. “I don’t agree there is nothing left,” Marc Pierini, a Carnegie Europe analyst and former EU representative in Ankara, told Al-Monitor. “The argument is rather that the process has constraints for Turkey — fundamental liberties, media freedom, public procurement, competition policy and so on — which are not compatible with the policies currently followed by the AKP [Erdogan's Justice and Development Party] in the run-up to elections. So, you are looking at a stark inconsistency between the domestic political narrative and the accession negotiations.”
One of the troubling domestic narratives has been Erdogan’s accusation of a foreign plot being behind the graft probe. EU diplomats speaking to Al-Monitor have said quite bluntly that such a blame game has its limits, and that it has started to fray nerves in European capitals. The issue, however, is not that Turkey’s accession talks will be halted, but that the Erdogan government is signaling more and more that it has lost its interest in pursuing EU membership. An added complication is that Erdogan’s approach to the Syrian dilemma is a key point of concern in many EU capitals. The issue is not that they disagree with Erdogan’s wanting to see Bashar al-Assad go, but on how to accomplish that. For example, the weapons-filled trucks that the gendarmerie in Adana attempted to seize on Jan. 19 — and that were found to be part of a Turkish national intelligence operation to transfer arms into Syria — create serious questions not only on whether the action followed the rule of law in Turkey but also whether it occurred in coordination with Turkey’s European and US allies in addressing the Syrian crisis. And this was certainly not an isolated incident.
Despite Erdogan’s outright denial of any support to any Islamic radical groups in Syria, there is a serious concern that Turkey is dancing with these groups in an effort to help strengthen them to get rid of Assad, or for whatever other reasons there may be.
Yet, Erdogan likes to blame the West for failing to address the Syrian mess properly or claim that those same Western powers are now involved in a dirty plot to bring him down, as seen in the corruption investigation that has brought even his son, Bilal Erdogan, into the spotlight. “Conspiracy theory won’t sell in Brussels; they [conspiracy theories] will only sink further Turkey’s image and badly harm the economy,” Pierini told Al-Monitor, stating that trying to justify recent measures involving the police, judiciary and the media under the EU criteria is a huge potential mistake. “Democratic reforms dismantled and graft allegations covered up means Turkey’s willful divorce from EU principles, and it is self-engineered 'crisis image' for Turkey.”
And the recent image is twisted also for another reason. Erdogan argues that the Sunni religious leader Fethullah Gulen’s movement is behind this latest so-called “coup” against his government involving the corruption allegations. While Erdogan denies that he does not respect the country’s judiciary and that it is not allowing it to freely do its job, he has literally turned the Gulen followers into enemies by implying that the prosecutor in the case is a Gulenist who receives orders from Gulen or elsewhere. Erdogan’s rhetoric has extended to saying that he is fighting a “war of independence” against this group and whoever is behind the attempted so-called coups in this latest crisis and in the Gezi Park protests. The Catch-22 is that both Erdogan's side and the Gulenists claim to be pious Muslims, and if so, the question becomes, what is it that differentiates between them today as opposed to before Dec. 17?
The problem is that Erdogan used to argue to the EU that the old Turkey or its secular elites had violated Turks' right to freely exercise their religion and banned them from doing so in state institutions and state universities. The prime minister said the ban on the headscarf in state institutions, including the parliament, was a violation of religious freedom, among other things. The current issue is not as black and white, however. Erdogan is not able to clearly show why the Gulen followers — who are devout Muslims — might be plotting a coup to bring him down, and how their value or belief system differs from his. It is crucial that outsiders follow these intricacies even more closely now, and for the EU to keep its ropes tight with Turkey, because this war between Erdogan and Gulen — the way it is played and how it plays out — may have importance beyond Turkey’s borders in terms of the evolution of political Islam. It may result in new opportunities and challenges.
Last but not the least, Erdogan government officials had a severe reaction to the 2012 EU progress report. Burhan Kuzu, the parliament's Constitution Committee chairman, even threw the report on the floor during the filming of a live TV show to make the point that they found the EU's criticism of their governance to be unfair. In 2013, the EU report was still strongly critical in its observations about the government’s handling of the Gezi Park protests, issues related to media freedom and basic human rights, but the reaction was kept under control and was low-key. This shows how Erdogan’s visit to Brussels might even be considered a success — if he can keep his favorite emotional reactions under control.