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Embracing Biden’s Democracy Agenda? Start with Turkey

Point of View, 22.06.2021 Research Areas

As economic woes edge Ankara towards dialogue, the European Union has a long list of geopolitical issues to discuss. Ilke Toygür argues that questions of democracy must not be forgotten.

European Union leaders are getting ready to discuss Turkey once again. The timing of the 24–25 June European Council is auspicious, after a week of G7, NATO and EU-US summits. Following four years of discontent between Brussels and Washington, this has been an exercise in reassurance, looking to reinvent multilateralism for the twenty-first century. The allies discussed rules for various policy areas, including economy, trade, climate, security and defence, while seeking a common stance against autocracies, particularly Russia and China. If Joe Biden and his European allies are serious about standing up to undemocratic regimes, the place to start is Turkey – which the European Council should do right away.

Turkey’s relations with its Western allies have been deteriorating for years. European decision-makers blame this on Ankara’s democratic backsliding and its unilateral foreign policy – which increasingly often runs counter to European interests. Developments in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and Nagorno-Karabakh, however, have shifted almost the entire focus to foreign policy. The EU’s desire to reduce tensions in its neighbourhood has eclipsed questions of democracy and rule of law. That is what is behind its proposal for a »positive agenda« with Turkey that is »progressive, proportionate and reversible«. It is thus conditional on Turkey’s external actions – good neighbourly relations in line with international law – but not clearly linked to the state of democracy. While the European Parliament flagged this in its recent report, a firm stance by the European Council is missing.

Commitment to democracy, everywhere

Turkey raised concerns in the EU when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has withdrawn the country from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women. This was clearly the continuation of a long-term trend limiting basic rights and freedoms. The new presidential system has eliminated most of the checks and balances. Civil society is under immense pressure. Democratically elected representatives have been removed and prosecuted. Last but not least the state prosecutor has applied to the constitutional court to ban the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). According to Freedom House, Turkey is »not free«, just like Russia and China.

This situation threatens the credibility of the transatlantic allies’ commitment to democracy, rule of law, and basic rights and freedoms. According to the summit communiqué, the G7 is committed to upholding a rules-based international system and defending values. That is also the promise of the NATO and transatlantic allies. Selective application would undermine that commitment. The rules apply to a rising China challenging Western economies – but not if you can get a bargain with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Those who prioritise geopolitics over principles might argue that Turkey gets less criticism as a NATO ally and strategically important accession candidate on the EU’s doorstep. Yet even if the European Union dropped the entire democratic conditionality framework, it would still risk being affected negatively by democratic backsliding and erosion of rule of law. Recent examples include unlawful detention of EU and US citizens and arbitrary decisions to move refugees to its borders with Greece back in 2020. Not to speak of the future risks to European investments.

European leaders may think that criticizing domestic repression in Turkey would put positive foreign policy developments at risk. There are no guarantees, however, that advances in the Eastern Mediterranean or relations with Greece, Cyprus or other member states will not be suddenly reversed, for example to rally nationalists behind the current government. The EU leaders must know that there can be no guarantees for the EU as long as instability prevails in Turkey – an instability exacerbated by deficits in democracy and rule of law. If the EU leaders choose to settle for a fragile status quo rather than promoting core values, they may still end up at odds with Turkey – while undermining the values they keep vowing to defend.

Serious about democracy? Time to speak-up

European leaders will try to buy time again, as they did at the European Council meetings in October and December 2020 and March 2021. But there is a window of opportunity. Ankara is on a charm offensive with its Western allies, needing an economic boost and trying to avoid European and US sanctions. While the government is determined to stay in charge, power struggles are emerging within the state apparatus. This is definitely the right time to set the tone – a tone that cares about democracy.

Action on Turkey is also needed to show the broader world that the G7, European Union and NATO mean what they said at last week’s summits. Democracy will be an important component of external action. If the EU cannot apply this principle to such a close neighbour, ally and EU accession candidate what does that say about the democracy agenda?

This text was also published at fairobserver.com.

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