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The latest bump in the road of Turkey’s quest to join the EU: European ultra-nationalism

A demonstrator holds a Turkish flag outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam in March 2017. Dylan Martinez/Reuters

The latest bump in the road of Turkey’s quest to join the EU: European ultra-nationalism

The rift between Turkey and Europe is growing. From a Turkish perspective, Ankara’s long and winding quest to join the European Union, which began in 1987, has never been less likely than it is today.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invoked Nazism in his criticism of his European counterparts. And a recent dispute between the Turkish government and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over Turkish ministers campaigning in Rotterdam cast a shadow over the March 15 Netherlands election.

This is only the latest in a long history of self-defeating conflicts between Turkey and EU leaders. But this time around, the diplomatic crisis goes beyond European anti-AKP sentiments toward Turkey’s ruling party. It relates also to social and political transformations underway in the EU itself.

Turkey’s EU bid

After positive early signs, Turkey’s EU accession process stalled in 2006 when an additional protocol, related to the division of Cyprus, was implemented to the opening of Turkey’s ports and airports to trade with Cyprus.

Cyprus was partitioned in 1974, divided between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots. Greek Cypriots have been integrated into the EU since 2004 as the sole representatives of the whole island, while Turks there live under isolation in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara.

The UN buffer zone in Nicosia, Cyprus, February 2017. Cyprus policy has been a source of tension between the EU and Turkey. Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters

In 2011, the EU Commission proposed a positive agenda for Turkey’s accession to the EU. But thanks to growing European fatigue over the enlargement of the bloc and the numerous economic and political crises it was then facing, the process again quickly ground to a halt.

By 2015 Turkey’s EU process had been revitalised while refugee migration to the EU was on the rise. However, in 2016 the EU Parliament proposed a temporary freeze on talks.

Loss of faith

Today’s EU is not as same as the one Turkey first sought to join. For Turkey, the European ideal has deteriorated as some European countries have increasingly embraced xenophobia, islamophobia, and anti-immigration sentiments.

All of these issues – which are in one way or another associated with Turkey – are discussed in the context of Turkish accession to the block. Europeans are also raising concerns about Turkey, especially after the state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the July 15 failed coup attempt.

The EU is of the view that some of the measures taken during the state of emergency pose problems for freedom of expression and rule of law in Turkey. Europe wonders whether the country is experiencing a democratic backlash.

Meanwhile, Europe’s weak response after the failed coup was disturbing for Turkish policy-makers and for President Erdoğan.

Many European leaders stayed silent during the event and in its immediate aftermath. EU officials’ later condemnation of the attempted coup was ambiguous, and they waited two months to visit Ankara.

Additionally, the failure of some EU countries to uphold European values in the context of the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis have exposed the limits of EU’s capacity to adapt itself to shifting domestic, regional and global conditions.

Turkish leaders have said several times that the refugee problem is a humanitarian crisis, warning that the EU perception of refugees as a security threat is not a solution.

Although it is true that the EU turned its eyes to the refugee crisis only when it started to be directly affected, some European countries, namely Germany, were the first to open their borders and integrate refugees. Therefore the main problem is not about a common European anti-refugee sentiment but rather the lack of a jointly undertaken, systematic European response to a crisis that’s banging up against the union’s door.

The image of a declining EU weakened by its institutions and threatened with post-Brexit disintegration seems to be growing in Turkey.

The “other” and ultra-nationalism in Europe

For Turks, this is further complicated by European foreign policy that has long perceived Turkey as the “other” in its backyard.

During the period of positive relations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this stance was largely publicly disavowed. But more recently some EU leaders have used Turkey as a political instrument, building their strong rejection of its possible accession to the EU on this view.

The domestic and regional challeges Turkey faces – and more importantly the EU’s perception of them – have hampered the possibility of building a stable relationship with the EU and creating a new roadmap for Turkey to join the European bloc.

Another piece to this “otherness” puzzle is the rise of ultra-nationalist parties in Europe, from the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany to the Freedom Party in the Netherlands.

Opposing Turkish membership of the EU has become a useful posture for some European capitals in mustering domestic support in the age of right-wing populism. Take, for example, the dense debates on Turkey’s EU campaign during Brexit vote, and the Dutch and Austrian elections.

This anti-Turkey discourse is likely to reinforce European ultra-nationalist parties in terms of obtaining more votes from the euro-sceptical, anti-Turkey electorate. But catering to nationalist instincts also makes it harder for the EU to defend its democratic credentials and to cast judgement on Turkey’s democracy.

Europe is on guard with the rise of ultra-nationalism. Here, a banner reading ‘They are back - citizens united against fascism’. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Finally, it is damaging the institutional and formal character of relations between a candidate country, Turkey, and an international organisation, the EU. A political schism among member states prevents the EU from acting as a unified, coherent potential partner.

Countries that, like Turkey, are engaging in institutional relations with the EU, must now deal with many different leaders, all of whom represent not only the EU but also the various domestic shifts in their own countries.

A rational common ground

Derailing Turkey’s accession process is counterproductive. It distances Turkish society from European societies and cuts off existing societal, historical and cultural ties between the two sides. Today, what remains of the progressive relation between the EU and Turkey is a loose network of institutions.

This does not serve the interest of either party. It is in the direct interest of Turkey to put the progressive relations of the past back on track and draw a renewed framework based on the shared value of democracy within the EU bloc. Both parties should also boost mutual understanding by searching the possibilities of further inclusion, rather than by playing on xenophobia and exclusion.

At the Dutch Consulate in Istanbul. Murad Sezer/Reuters

In the short term, a renewed Turkey-EU cooperation could help Europe to manage better the consequences of the Syrian crisis.

For the EU, then, a stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey in its neighbourhood acts as something of a guarantee to its members’ own economic development, security and democracy.

And in the long term, perhaps more importantly, such rational cooperation would bring new life to the belief in internationalism in an era marked by the rise of nationalism and populism.

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