Turkey and the EU: From friends to foes

A few years ago, Ankara was seen as a bridge between east and west. Now that has all changed

EU/Turkey flag
(Image credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Europe's leaders once hailed Turkey as a beacon of hope, proof that Islam and liberalism could coincide.

But in the aftermath of last year's attempted coup, that has all changed.

At the beginning of this month, the European Parliament, alarmed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plan to expand his powers, called for accession talks to be suspended, while Swedish lawmakers have accused him of war crimes against Turkey’s Kurdish community, reports The Independent.

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Turkey, too, has distanced itself from Europe. Last week, Erdogan told BBC World's HardTalk his country was ready to "stand on its own two feet", with the majority of Turkish people no longer "wanting the EU any more."

So why has Ankara's relationship with Brussels turned so sour?

A foot in the EU door

In the 1920s, Turkey transitioned from a sultanate, ruled by the Ottoman empire, to a secular republic.

Its infancy was plagued by political instability as it became embroiled in conflict with the Kurds, but leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk implemented a series of reforms aimed at westernising the country.

After World War II, Turkey kept its eyes on Europe and in 1963, signed the Ankara Agreement with the European Economic Community (EEC), the EU's predecessor. More than 20 years later, Turkey applied to join the group before, in 1997, it was declared eligible to join the EU.

After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan initially worked "hand in glove" with the bloc to meet membership criteria, says Al Jazeera. Constitutional reforms curbed the political role of the military, the death penalty was outlawed and personal freedoms - including rights of the Kurdish community - were extended.

Giving the cold shoulder

Turkey began formal accession negotiations with the EU in 2005, but suffered a setback almost immediately.

That year saw the election of the conservative Angela Merkel in Germany, followed two years later by Nicolas Sarkozy in France. Against a backdrop of European wariness about admiting a largely Muslim nation, says Reuters, both countries opposed full membership for Ankara.

Of particular issue was northern and southern Cyprus. Turkey refused to recognise and trade with the south of the island until the EU did the same in the Turkish republic of the north, which Cyprus opposed. The disagreement has hindered talks for the past decade.

Arab spring

Anti-government protests hit the Middle East in 2011, spreading from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt and Syria, bringing hopes that the region was undergoing a democratic transformation. Turkey’s leaders were among the most optimistic, seeing an opportunity to position themselves as democratic, regional heads.

However, by 2014, that seemed like "a past age," says Al-Jazeera. The previous year had seen the brutal crackdown of the Gezi Park protests against Ankara's plan to turn an Istabul park into a shopping mall. "The world watched, aghast, as Turkish police blasted peaceful protesters with water cannons and dragged bloodied, school-age youth into police trucks," says the site. The protests became "a symbol of Turkey's urban discontent" and disenchantment with Erdogan and his ruling AKP party.

Turkish authorities clamped down on anyone who expressed dissent, reports Politico, with the attack on freedom of expression intensifying following the terror attacks of 2015, which led to the breakdown of a ceasefire with Kurdish militant group, the PKK.

Europe's refugee crisis

During the same period, Europe was experiencing a refugee crisis prompted by the conflict in Syria and its neighbours. Turkey, a bridge between east and west, was critical in any attempt to halt the arrival of refugees and economic migrants.The EU agreed to a controversial "one in, one out" deal with the country, promising to take one refugee for every illegal migrant shipped back to Turkey. The cost of the deal, beyond financial aid, was a loosening of visa restrictions for Turks wanting to travel to the EU.

A year later, however, Turkey was still waiting for visa-free travel, inflaming the relationship between Ankara and Brussels to such an extent the country threatened to cancel the deal if progress was not forthcoming.

Politico reports that there is also concern that because the EU is "beholden to Turkey over the migrant arrangement", it is not adequately addressing human rights violations in the country.

Failed coup and its shadow

On 15 July 2016, divisions of the Turkish military attacked several major cities, reportedly as part of a coordinated attempt to topple Erdogan and his government. The attempted coup led to an ongoing state of emergency, which has equipped the President with extraordinary powers.

Latest figures show that more than 110,000 have been detained on his orders, including members of the police, military and judiciary, as well as civil servants, teachers and journalists.

While Erdogan claims this is a necessary clampdown on conspirators, the EU accuse him of using the coup as an excuse to eliminate the opposition, reports Al Jazeera. A report from the Stockholm Center for Freedom claims the coup was staged by the government in order to justify a clampdown against political dissenters.

Faced with condemnation and scepticism, Erdogan's rhetoric has become increasingly anti-European, attacking critics of the country's human rights record.

"From time to time, we see insults directed at myself, claims that there was no freedom of expression in Turkey. Meanwhile, terrorists prance around in French, German and Belgian streets. This is what they understand of freedom," he said last November.

Referendum fallout

A referendum this April saw Turkey vote to change its constitution, transferring executive powers to Erdogan and permitting the presidential appointment of judges.

In the run-up to the vote, which the Council of Europe said was skewed in favour of the "Yes" campaign, Erdogan attempted to hold rallies in Germany and Austria to appeal to the Turkish diaspora but was stopped over alleged security concerns.

In response, the Turkish leader accused Berlin of applying the "Nazi practices of the past". It has since vetoed Nato cooperation with Austria and refused Germany access to one of its military airbases.

The next move?

With relations so strained, Turkey becoming an EU member in the near future is looking doubtful - especially after Erdogan repeated his support for the death penalty, saying he would "cut the heads off" traitors intent on destabilising Turkey and would not hesitate to sign a bill that resumed lawful executions.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, warned "Turkey would definitively slam the door on EU membership" if this were to happen.

Whether this would leave Turkey in a political abyss depends on what other alliances Erdogan is able to form. There has been speculation that Turkey could join a Chinese and Russian-led agreement as an alternative to the EU, which could shift the dynamics within Nato and leave the European leaders to consider their next move.

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