For the European Union, the crackdown against protesters in Istanbul by the Turkish government creates a dilemma for the EU. The Europeans don't want to tolerate violence against demonstrators, but they also don't want to lose Erdogan as a partner. On June 26, EU foreign ministers had hoped to open a new chapter in accession talks with Turkey for the first time in three years. It would be the 19th of 35 chapters that must be completed before Ankara can join the European club.
From the perspective of the United States, the ball of the Middle Eastern roulette has landed on the worst number. In a mere two years, Washington has lost almost all its allies in the region. Before 2011: In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak managed to contain Islamist tendencies. Syria was moving along just fine, and the Assad clan even agreed to a partial retreat from Lebanon. Saudi Arabia had grown more lenient with its oil policies. Iran’s dictatorship had been shaken by a widespread revolt and was only clinging to power through coercion – not a very lasting solution. In short, it didn’t look too bad for proponents of American interests.
Then the region collapsed – some call it the “Arab Spring” – and the big discussion focused on finding a “new political model”. Turkey came in very handy for that purpose: Ankara’s government was considered to have Islamist tendencies, but it was also seen as moderate. A strong Turkey could also check the Syrian uprising and contain Kurdish terrorism. Ideologically, Turkey’s moderate stance could serve as a counter-weight to the extremists in Iran and could prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from engaging in religious zealotry and from becoming the sole voice of Islam.
From EU's perspective, the situation presents a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, officials don't want to watch silently as violence is inflicted upon peaceful protesters. All the same, they don't want to lose Ergodan as a partner. They are worried that the violent excesses in Turkey could destroy progress made in recent months. After years of stalling, diplomats had worked painstakingly to get talks over Turkey's future European Union accession back on track.
In member countries' parliaments and the European Parliament, the chorus of voices demanding that accession talks be suspended is growing. A decision by the foreign ministers to open a chapter on regional policies on June 26 could even be delayed, EU sources in Brussels said, expressing their disappointment. Turkey has been engaged in accession negotiations with the EU since 2005, but so far only one chapter has been closed -- that of science and research.
As far as EU is concerned, the current protest is not the only reason why some countries would like to delay Turkey's accession. Freedom of the press and diversity of opinion have been in jeopardy in Turkey, and not just since the current unrest began some two weeks ago. No other country in the world -- not even China or Iran -- has more journalists in prison than Turkey, which hopes to be accepted into the European Union. It's an embarrassing world record.
But Erdogan is putting his partners to the test. The more Erdogan acts like a Putin light, the more difficult it will be to promote EU membership for Turkey. However EU partners also have no real means with which to pressure Erdogan to reason. The threat to suspend membership talks might just be an empty threat. Erdogan knows it and does not mind. He has other priorities.
It has taken a long time for the liberal, secular Turks to lose their patience. They have gritted their teeth and endured it as the conservative-Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reined in their freedoms. During the Arab Spring, Erdogan quickly rallied to the side of those who protested against dictatorial regimes. But he apparently learned nothing from these movements. While the oppressed people in the Middle East and North Africa strove for more freedoms, Erdogan restricted democratic rights.
The problem with the America-centered strategy is that Turkey was never a feasible candidate to rebuild the political order in the Middle East. Theirs heirs of the ottoman Empire, whose reputation in the Arab Middle East is anything but good, were asked with leading the Arab world and leveraged opposition to Israel as a means of building political consensus. At the same time, the US tried to bring Turkey over to the western side with the intent of introducing real moderation to Islamist policies, and tried to rebuild the region on the foundation of a Turkish-Israel axis. But the American strategy has failed.
In the case of American-Turkey strategy: delaying tactics that dominate Middle East policy do not seem to pay off. The Obama's administration needs to recognize that Turkey was never a feasible candidate to rebuild the political order in the Middle East. In the case of Turkey's accession in European Union club, EU's leaders need to recognize that the brutality and suppression of freedom of speech or assembly, used by Erdogan's government, are not democratic and are indeed against European Union values.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst