Turkey should be the starting point for Biden’s democratic agenda


A demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, on 05/08/2020. © Emre Orman / Shutterstock

The leaders of the European Union are preparing to discuss Turkey again. The timing of the June 24-25 European Council meeting is crucial, just after the G7, NATO and EU-US summits. After four years of discontent between Brussels and Washington, this is a reassurance exercise aimed at reinventing multilateralism for the 21st century.

At the summits, the allies discussed the rules in various policy areas including the economy, trade, climate, security and defense, while seeking a common stance against autocracies, especially Russia and China. If US President Joe Biden and his European allies are serious about opposing undemocratic regimes, the place to start is Turkey, which the European Council should focus on immediately.

United States must commit to protecting Central Americans


Turkey’s relations with its Western allies have been deteriorating for years. European policymakers attribute this to Ankara’s democratic retreat and its unilateral foreign policy, which increasingly runs counter to European interests. Developments in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and Nagorno-Karabakh, however, have shifted almost all of the attention to foreign policy.

The EU’s drive to reduce tensions in its neighborhood has overshadowed issues of democracy and the rule of law. This is what is behind his proposal for a “positive agenda” with Turkey that is “progressive, proportional and reversible”. It is therefore conditioned on Turkey’s external actions – good regional relations in accordance with international law – but not clearly linked to the state of democracy. As the European Parliament pointed out in its recent report, a firm position of the European Council is missing.

Commitment to democracy, everywhere

In March, concerns increased in the EU when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan withdrew Turkey from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women. This was clearly the continuation of a long-term trend limiting fundamental rights and freedoms. The new presidential system in Turkey has removed most of the checks and balances. Civil society is under immense pressure. Democratically elected representatives were removed from their posts and prosecuted. Last but not least, the public prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court to ban the opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP). According to Liberty house, Turkey is “not free”, just like Russia and China.

This threatens the credibility of the commitment of the transatlantic allies to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms. According to the summit communicated, the G7 is committed to upholding a rules-based international system and upholding values. This is also the promise of NATO and the transatlantic allies.

Selective enforcement would undermine that commitment: The rules apply to a booming China challenging Western economies, but not if you can make a deal with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Those who prioritize geopolitics over principles might argue that Turkey receives less criticism as a NATO ally and strategically important membership candidate at the EU’s gates. Yet even if the European Union abandoned the entire framework of democratic conditionality, it would still risk being negatively affected by democratic decline and the erosion of the rule of law. Recent examples include Turkey’s illegal detention of European and American citizens and arbitrary decisions to move refugees to its borders with Greece in 2020. Not to mention future risks to European investments.

European leaders may think that criticizing domestic repression in Turkey would endanger positive foreign policy developments. There is no guarantee, however, that advances in the Eastern Mediterranean or relations with Greece, Cyprus or other member states will not suddenly be reversed, for example to rally nationalists behind the current government.

EU leaders should know that there can be no guarantees for the union as long as instability reigns in Turkey. The situation in the country has been exacerbated by deficits in democracy and the rule of law. If European leaders choose to settle for a fragile status quo rather than promoting core values, they could still find themselves at odds with Turkey, while undermining the values ​​they continue to pledge to uphold.

Is democracy serious? It’s time to talk

European leaders will try to buy time again, as they did at the European Councils in October and December 2020 and March 2021. But there is a window of opportunity. Ankara is leading a charm offensive with its Western allies, needs an economic boost and is trying to avoid European and American sanctions. As the government is determined to remain in control, power struggles are emerging within the state apparatus. It is certainly the right time to set the tone, one that emphasizes democracy.

Action on Turkey is also needed to show the world at large that the G7, the European Union and NATO mean what they said at recent summits. Democracy will be an important component of external action. If the European Union cannot apply this principle to such a close neighbor, ally and candidate for membership, what does that say about the democratic agenda?

*[This article was originally published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions related to foreign and security policy.]

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.

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