A few years ago, Angela Merkel sent a political message to Turkey that was interpreted as follows: no matter what democratic reforms will be implemented by Turkish society and institutions, your country will never enter the European Union. That was wrong then. A few weeks ago, Angela Merkel made a visit to Turkey and made promises which also can be interpreted as a political message: no matter how dictatorial this country is becoming, we can accelerate Turkey’s accession process to the EU. This is wrong now.
Two wrongs do not make a right. Indeed, two wrongs result in something that is more than doubly wrong, and has consequences for us all. Still, Chancellor Merkel can say that, in essence, her political stance has not changed. A few years ago when Turkey was already a candidate for the Union the German Chancellor was against its accession which was a matter of personal opinion; now, Turkey’s accession process can be sped up which is a matter of procedure, while Merkel can hold on to her opinion as being only a personal matter.
What is essential, nonetheless, is how these political gestures are interpreted by the peoples concerned, in Turkey and in the EU.
When years ago, both Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy let it be known that they did not appreciate Turkey entering the EU, the accession procedure did not stop. Still, the political interpretation of what they said was clear in Turkey — and its effect was devastating, particularly among the youth, the minorities and important sectors of civil society. Young people were shocked as they interpreted the statements as ‘We do not want you because you are Muslim, even though you may very well be European.’ Minorities, especially the Kurds, gave up hope on ever having a level of protection of their rights equivalent to the standards of developed democracies. Intellectuals and academics braced themselves for isolation and depression. And even Turkey’s own administration, undermined by its rivalries, corruption, and the (real or imagined) omnipresence of its famous ‘deep state’, ceased to pretend that it would in practice do anything for the promotion of rule of law in the country.
The worst effect of Angela Merkel’ s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s political blunder, however, was to have given free rein to the then prime minister and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who in recent years has been building an authoritarian state ─ or even a state that is becoming, in its essence, dictatorial. In Turkey you can these days be arrested for reading a book, for meeting the wrong person or for writing an opinion piece that can be interpreted as an ‘insult to the Turkish nation’ ─ and you can stay in jail for a very long time. Real or invented conspiracies allowed the regime to keep the opposition under permanent suspicion. Parties that defend minorities and fundamental rights are always at risk of being outlawed.
And it is in this context that Merkel makes her second big political mistake: the German chancellor goes to Turkey, just a few weeks before an important election, and says something that could be read as just a statement of fact — that the Turkish accession procedure is ongoing and can even be sped up — but in reality cannot be seen as anything else than a political signal to Erdoğan: you can do whatever you want and still be rewarded.
Well then, while a few years ago, Turkey could do everything to become a democracy and still wasn’t allowed to enter the EU, Turkey is now becoming dictatorial and yet its accession procedure may be accelerated.
What has happened in the meantime? The answer is simple: the refugee crisis. In the current situation Europe’s governments are now quite dependent on Erdoğan. They may find the man unpleasant, but they do need him to contain the ‘migration flow’ that brings to our doorstep the problems that these governments would rather ignore. And Erdoğan will be cooperative with the EU’s governments if he gets what he wants: a semblance of political respectability, diplomatic and symbolic victories to display at home and more money. Three billion euros have already been pledged, more will come soon.
This is how you gain elections and reinforce your stronghold on a country that is getting to the point of losing hope in ever becoming a plural, open and free society.
What is happening here is of crucial importance for the citizens of all EU Member States. If the rule of law becomes a mere detail in the accession process to the Union, it is the Union itself which becomes unsustainable: the single market or the Schengen area will no longer be credible if the political and judicial systems of each and every single member state cease to be credible, nor will common borders continue to exist. Denying Turkey the hope to enter the EU years ago did just as much to undermine the spirit of the European Union as will now speeding up the accession process of a Turkish Republic that is momentarily going from bad to worse. We have failed the Turks twice, — and keep failing in upholding our own principles.
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