Responding to his Euro-sceptic opponents in the UK referendum debate, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday that Turkey wouldn’t join the European Union “until the year 3000” at the current rate of progress.  Although a bit of rhetorical hyperbole aimed at countering claims by his pro-Brexit Conservative colleagues that Turkish membership would “swamp” Britain by giving the country’s 80 million citizens the right to travel and work wherever they desired within the EU, Cameron’s remark reflected a general feeling by European leaders that Turkey’s chances for membership had dimmed considerably in recent years. 

Indeed, the country’s political system, much heralded in the last decade as an example of a successful “Islamist” democracy, is under increasing pressure both domestically and internationally.  Since becoming Turkish president in 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved decisively to concentrate power in his hands, often at the expense of human rights and democratic norms, as well as the independence of Turkish institutions.  Critics both within and outside his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have tried to block these moves over the years, but to no avail.  Blessed with a weak political opposition, Erdogan has managed to outmaneuver his rivals who opposed his stated desire to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a stronger presidency modeled on the U.S. or France.

Signs of Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies became clear last year, when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in a historic upset in June’s parliamentary elections.  Although he had long been an advocate of a peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, Erdogan changed his policy following his party’s defeat by launching an all-out war on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who had escalated their 30-year-old insurgency over the summer.   By doing so, the president presented himself to Turkey’s electorate as the guarantor of the nation’s security in the face of threats from Kurdish rebels and the so-called Islamic State (IS) who had themselves initiated a series of suicide bombings inside the country in July.  Erdogan also began targeting journalists who were critical of his line and several opposition media houses were closed down.  In the end, the president’s plan worked:  In snap elections called on November 1, AKP won back its majority.  Erdogan made clear that he would press on with the war against the PKK and IS and move forward with his plans to create an “imperial presidency” while continuing to cow any domestic opposition to these policies.

Before this centralization of power could be put into effect, however, opponents within his own AKP party needed to be neutralized.  Chief among these was his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who, although a loyal Erdoganist, had been an advocate of peace with the Kurds and was gaining increasing popularity in Western circles as a pragmatic reformer.  In March of this year, Davutoglu had engineered an agreement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel meant to staunch the flow of migrants from Turkey, over the Aegean, into the heart of Europe.  In return for accepting Syrian refugees back from Greece, the Turks would receive three billion Euro, visa free travel to the EU and the restarting of membership talks.  To qualify for visa free travel, Turkey would have to meet a number of criteria, including passing reform legislation which would bolster democracy and human rights.  The migrant agreement ultimately managed to reduce the number of people seeking refuge in Europe from a high of tens of thousands a day during last summer to only a few hundred in recent weeks.  However, Davutoglu had apparently hashed out the deal with Merkel without consulting Erdogan.  As the Turkish Prime Minister basked in the glow of his success at EU summits, the president was likely left fuming in his new palace in Ankara.   Adding insult to injury, the Prime Minister was known to have been an opponent of Erdogan’s plans to call a referendum to change the Turkish constitution by augmenting the powers of the president.

And so in the president’s mind, Davutoglu, and the migration deal, had to go.   In a stunning about face, Erdogan reversed his Prime Minister’s agreements with his European partners.  Turning his back on the migrant deal, he refused to revise Turkey’s stringent anti-terrorism laws as required by the EU saying “Europe can go its way and we’ll go ours.”   Meanwhile, in what was interpreted as an attempt to embarrass Merkel, Erdogan requested legal proceedings be initiated against a German comedian who had offended him by reading a profanity-laced poem dedicated to the Turkish president on television.  (Part of the poem was ultimately deemed unlawful by German courts, but no prison sentence was imposed on the comic.)  Meanwhile, Erdogan’s allies launched a social media campaign against Davutoglu claiming, among other things, that he was undermining the integrity and security of Turkey by selfishly seeking glory in Western capitals.

On May 4, following a meeting with Erdogan, Davutoglu announced that he was stepping down as Prime Minister.   Turkey’s stock market plunged when the news hit.  On May 20, the AKP-dominated parliament voted to lift the immunity of over 100 opposition MPs including many members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP.)  This move, which was intended to make it easier for AKP to ram a constitutional change through parliament, was rounded condemned by the European Commission on May 21 who said that the vote imperiled the migrant deal and any hopes of Turkey’s EU accession. 

At a party congress, called on May 22 to select Davutoglu’s successor, AKP “appointed” Binali Yildirim, a former Transport Minister and longtime Erdogan loyalist, as its new chairman.   The uncharismatic Yildirim can be expected to follow his boss’ wishes and not step out of line like his predecessor had been accused of doing.  “We can expect more harmony between the president and the prime minister, whereby the president will be more active,” said Bulent Turan, the AKP’s parliamentary whip.   For his part, Yildirim indicated that he was a staunch supporter of Erdogan’s plans to centralize power in the presidency.  “Turkey needs a new constitution,” he told the AKP congress.  “What has to be a priority now is moving from the current de facto system to a legal system.  Are you ready to bring in a presidential system?”  He then turned in his speech to Turkey’s long stalled bid for EU membership.  “This confusion over Turkey’s full membership and the migrant issue has to be brought to an end.  It is time for us to know what the EU thinks about Turkey.” 

So European leaders are now faced with a difficult choice:  Submit to Erdogan’s intransigence and waive the outstanding membership criteria thereby casting aside the human rights and democratic standards underpinning the European project, or turn their back on the Turkish President and provoke him to trash the migrant deal, returning the continent to the massive refugee flows of last summer and fall.  The latter option would be particularly catastrophic for traditional center-right parties facing possible electoral defeat at the hands of far-right parties riding a growing anti-immigrant wave in public opinion.  This populist pressure in Europe could make Turkeys’ EU accession, and even the granting of visa-free travel, a much more distant prospect.  At this rate, as the British Prime Minister points out, we may be celebrating Turkey’s EU accession in the new millennium after all.

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