Turkey Coup Derails the Missed EU Train

Turkey-European Union

© Veronaa

The European Union’s position vis-à-vis the failed coup attempt in Turkey has put another dent in Ankara-Brussels relations.

On July 15, as rebel pilots were still flying sorties over Ankara and Istanbul, former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted: “Whatever our other reservations, we must stand firmly with the democratically elected government of Turkey.” For Turks, this tweet was a lone voice in the European wilderness. Since then, the European Union (EU) has remained solidly indifferent toward the failed coup attempt that cost the lives of 240 people.

Indeed, neither parliament nor the presidential palace has received any high-profile European guests to show solidarity following the tragedy. The only exception was Thorbjorn Jagland, the head of the Council of Europe, who visited Ankara on August 3, more than two weeks after the failed coup. Turkish politicians, from both the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition, were shockingly disappointed.

Now, an important part of the nation ardently supporting Turkey’s EU membership bid—especially the secularists, liberals and social democrats—feel sidelined and abandoned by the union.

Europe’s Response

The fragile bilateral relations between Ankara and Brussels can hardly explain such an awkward outlook. Instead of seeking any rationale in Europe’s careless attitude vis-à-vis the coup attempt in Turkey, one might need to understand the background context.

First, there has been a growing backlash in Europe against the governing AKP over the last five years. Criticism mostly centers on Turkey’s standards of democratic governance and human rights. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh tone over the European Union’s reluctance to share the burden of millions of Syrian refugees has also fueled the hostility among European politicians.

Thus, the rising contempt against the Turkish president and government has likely engendered a feeling of schadenfreude—the sense of pleasure derived from others’ misfortune—in European capitals. In other words, many EU policymakers have seemingly misperceived the coup attempt as opposition to the AKP government, not against the imperfect but still functioning Turkish democracy.

Second, Europe has become more and more “Islam-fatigued” in recent years. Refugee inflows from Syria and other Muslim countries and terrorist attacks initiated by Daesh (Islamic State) in France and Belgium have exacerbated the rising Islamophobia among Europeans, creating an extremely negative and monolithic perception of Islam.

In turn, many Europeans either do not care about Turkey and other Muslim countries, or they do not feel much sympathy for the pain and suffering in that part of the world. Instead, turmoil, civil wars and coup d’états—failed or otherwise—are the Middle East’s new normal from a Eurocentric and Orientalist perspective.

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Moreover, the European public is quite averse to Turkey’s membership in the EU. A recent poll by Emnid suggests that around 66% of Germans want the accession talks to be broken off immediately.

Third, the European Union lacks a visionary political leadership to handle such critical issues taking place in its neighborhood, and it cannot wield influence over their outcomes. The EU needs more high-profile and influential political figures than the current ones who fail to see the indirect repercussions of Turkey’s likely destabilization on Europe, leading to a failure to develop strategies to strengthen communication with Turkey.

Turkey’s Missed Chances

That being said, the problem is never one-sided. Policymakers in Ankara frequently miss the benefits of productive language and well-tailored public diplomacy measures to handle ties with the EU. Besides, the Turkish side also grapples with its own negative sentiments against Europe and the West. In this instance, there were two key missed opportunities for Turkey.

First, the decades-old lack of progress in EU accession talks has now turned into a sense of absolute relinquishment in Turkey. In other words, both politicians and the public seem to have completely lost their motivation vis-à-vis the full membership prospects and other fields of cooperation. This is clearly seen in both practice and discourse.

For instance, the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs recently canceled the Jean Monnet Scholarship Program, which aims to provide an EU fund for hundreds of Turkish public employees and academics every year to study and conduct research in EU member states. The decision came as an apparent anti-EU signal at a time when Turkey needs strong public-to-public dialogue channels in Europe to counter misperceptions.

Second, the aftermath of the failed coup could have been managed better in terms of public relations. The most significant aspect of the post-July 15 period has been its surprising assistance to generate a widespread consensus for democracy among Turkish citizens and politicians, regardless of their political differences.

On August 7, a massive rally took place in Istanbul, bringing together President Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and two opposition party leaders who all gave speeches and stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the Gulen movement, which is strongly accused of instigating the coup. Given the long-lasting and polarized nature of the Turkish political arena, that very picture should have been the main story to be promoted as the country’s integral soft power asset, since it signified the life of Turkish democracy.

However, Erdogan’s remarks to support reinstating the death penalty supplanted the promising improvement of political dialogue. International media outlets opted to highlight the issue of capital punishment as the main headline while covering the post-coup period. The opportunity to improve Turkey’s image and prestige has, therefore, been insufficiently used by the government, if not entirely wasted.

The climate in both Ankara and Brussels now seems to be based upon the notion that it is simply unnecessary to run after a train that has already derailed. What is now needed is a skillful touch to remind both parties of the risks, as this could lead to more careless policies and, accordingly, ramifications destabilizing the region. Without addressing these issues, political disagreements cannot be repaired.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Veronaa


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