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Reading Erdoğan: The demand for EU entry is more than bluster

Reading Erdoğan: The demand for EU entry is more than bluster

After years of playing off his people's angst of Eurocentrism, the successful Turkish strongman now sees the West as a way out of his troubles.

Analysis | Middle East

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stunned Western leaders last week in Vilnius, announcing that he supported Sweden’s NATO bid while reiterating interest in Turkey’s accession into the European Union, which Sweden, in turn, pledged to support. 

Following on the heels of a closely watched presidential election, which Erdoğan won by playing up concerns over national sovereignty and identity politics, his return to the subject of EU membership surprised many Turkey-watchers. Erdoğan surely wants the F-16s from the U.S. and to erode Europe’s hospitality towards Turkish and Kurdish dissidents. But after years of showing little interest in restarting EU membership talks (something that the Turkish opposition had promised to do if elected), could he really want to revive the issue today? 

Analysts were quick to interpret Erdoğan’s statements about EU membership as one more political ploy from a leader known for misdirection, aimed at forcing last-minute concessions from the West. What such assessments miss is the immense and long-lived significance of Turkey’s relationship with Europe, and how effective this topic can be in mobilizing the Turkish electorate. 

Erdoğan, like politicians before him, has learned that playing into (hardly unfounded) frustrations with Western hegemony can pay political dividends just as well as encouraging the sense that Turkey’s future depends on Europe’s partnership and recognition. Having secured another five-year term in part by playing on the former strategy, Erdoğan can now make use of the second. Capitalizing on deep-seated desires for European recognition (even among voters also amenable to anti-Westernism), Erdoğan can begin to orchestrate a strategic pivot back towards the West. 

Progress on Turkey’s EU bid was effectively halted in 2016, as Erdoğan’s repressive crackdown on civil society following the failed 2016 coup gave European leaders (many of whom had never liked the idea of a majority Muslim nation joining the historically Christian club) an excuse to effectively shut down negotiations over Turkish accession. This followed decades of — often rocky — efforts to bring Turkey into Europe. 

Yet while it was Erdoğan’s authoritarianism that allowed negotiations to be formally frozen in 2019, it was Erdoğan himself who had succeeded in pushing these negotiations forward after first taking the premiership in 2003. Erdoğan, following a precedent set by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, argued that his nation’s path to global power and prestige must pass through Europe. To keep Turkey on this path, the Erdoğan of the 2000s championed some of the most sweeping democratic reforms in the country’s history.

The reasons for Erdoğan’s abandonment of such democratic, liberalizing reforms are complex. In part, these reforms proved insufficient to gain enough support among European leaders. Offended by European reluctance to take Turkish membership seriously, rattled by the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the fallout from the Syrian war, and terrified by the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan turned away from EU membership and towards an increasingly paranoid authoritarianism. 

Erdoğan quickly discovered, moreover, that much of the Turkish population was likewise offended by Brussel’s intransigence, and that, by playing up anxieties over Western interference and Turkophobia, he could drum up as much domestic support as he once had by pledging to bring Turkey into the EU. 

Erdoğan is in a very different position today than he was in the late 2010s, however. Potential enemies in government, military, academia, and civil society have been purged. The Syrian war no longer poses the existential threat to Turkish sovereignty that it did five or ten years ago. The success of 2017’s constitutional referendum gave Erdoğan a new presidential system that grants immense power to the executive branch. Most of all, Erdoğan’s decisive victory in national elections last May showed that the Turkish opposition remains incapable of ousting him at the ballot box (even if many Turks voted for him not out of affection but out of distrust for the opposition).

Despite proving his talents as a political survivor, however, Erdoğan faces a raft of challenges: the Turkish economy, despite possessing solid fundamentals, is a mess. Turks have struggled to buy groceries and keep up with rising rents. Millions are still suffering from last February’s catastrophic earthquakes that officially claimed more than 50,000 lives but may have killed several times that number.

Erdoğan cannot rely indefinitely on identity scare tactics and a fractious opposition to preserve his rule. He probably knows that he is more disliked today (even by many of his own voters) than at any point in his 30 years in politics. After his new five-year term completes, constitutionally enshrined term limits and an electorally engaged public will again decide his fate (a fate that, having already come close to possible execution, can go sideways fast). 

Thus, the renewal of EU membership talks provides Erdoğan a tried-and-true strategy for playing on Turks’ deep-seated desires for both a brighter economic future and a more powerful place on the international stage. The anti-Westernism mobilized by Erdoğan in recent years can be easily reconverted into desires for the material and — given long-standing Turkish frustrations with European Islamophobia and Orientalism — psychological benefits that EU membership might bring. 

A pivot back towards the West may be all the more appealing as Russia’s value as an ally diminishes, and as tensions in Turkish-Chinese relations persist. Ankara has indeed shown a recent change in attitude towards Moscow, with Erdoğan returning captured members of the notorious Azov Brigade back to Ukraine, breaking a promise to Putin. At the same time, Erdoğan has indicated a shift towards more friendly relations with Greece, and has succumbed to pressure — not least from Western economists — to reverse course on years of disastrous monetary policy.

Such moves indicate that Erdoğan may indeed be engineering a westward pivot. The consequences of such a shift could be significant for U.S. foreign policy and Turkish-EU relations. 

For Washington, a less antagonistic Ankara could strengthen the recently reaffirmed U.S.-Turkish “Strategic Mechanism” — a list of bilateral priorities including NATO cooperation, coordinated anti-terrorism operations, stability in the Aegean, and control of Black Sea shipping routes, including global grain shipments threatened by the war in Ukraine. 

For Europe, a realigned Ankara could mean increased cooperation on the European Green Deal and the management of refugee flows. Turkish-EU cooperation could also accelerate Turkey’s ability to become a European “energy hub,” and revised customs agreements could allow Europe to benefit from Turkey’s powerful manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

At home, renewed interest in EU membership may indicate a willingness on Erdoğan’s part to tack back towards the center, perhaps supporting (as he did in the 2000s) economic and anti-corruption reforms and an easing of political repression. Such strategic shifts from a politics of fear to one of aspiration have been, in Turkey as elsewhere, effective strategies for both manufacturing consent and disorienting opposition. 

The mere possibility of a change in direction is small comfort for the millions of Turks who are fearful and angry about what the next five years will bring. But analysts would do well not to dismiss the possibility of such pivots. Erdoğan, a political chameleon with an instinct for self-preservation, may yet surprise us.

Analysis | Middle East
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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