Breaking Analysis | July 11th, 2023
Erdoğan dropped demand for EU bid due to economic and strategic reality, but the country’s political culture requires looking to Europe, scholar argues.
Turkey’s abrupt decision to allow Sweden’s accession to NATO, even if Ankara does not gain EU membership in return, is driven by the country’s dire economic conditions and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s perception of the weakness of Russia’s leader, an expert tells Middle East Policy.
M. Hakan Yavuz, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, also stressed the security benefits of following the preferences of NATO member states. Ankara faces “a pressing need to modernize its air force, particularly by upgrading its F-16 military jets,” Yavuz said. “This necessity arises from Turkey's recognition of the importance of maintaining a strong and up-to-date aerial defense capability.”
Erdoğan's move may clear the way for the US Congress to approve the sale of F-16s to Ankara. In addition, officials meeting at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, said that Sweden would work with Turkey on counterterrorism.
While Erdoğan on Monday appeared to demand the resumption of talks to join Europe, Yavuz contended that the strongman’s state-building project is fundamentally opposed to the union. “He believes that Turkey's future lies in its past, specifically in an Islamic-Ottoman imperial image,” Yavuz argued. “As a result, he dismantled the Western-oriented Republic and established an oppressive and autocratic system.”
However, even without Erdoğan in the picture, it is not clear that Europe would rush to revive membership talks. “Christian Democrat parties and right-wing parties consistently sought to establish European identity in opposition to Islam and the Turkish presence. For these factions, Turkey's accession would challenge European identity, and they remain opposed to Turkey joining the EU,” said Yavuz, whose analysis of the May presidential elections will appear in the fall issue of Middle East Policy.
But the scholar contended that joining Europe will be crucial to rebuilding civil society in Turkey after two decades of Erdoğan’s rule. “EU membership would enhance Turkey’s democratization and transform its authoritarian-friendly political culture,” said Yavuz, who has written a political biography of Erdoğan as well as another analysis of neo-Ottomanism in Turkey. The latter volume was reviewed in the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy.
While the next Turkish leader might face difficulties convincing the public, or the European Union, that the country needs to look West, Yavuz argued that Ankara could pursue avenues short of membership, such as a “special relationship.”
The scholar finished the interview with a caution to American officials: The Turkish public, not just Erdoğan, has grown closer to Russia and is wary of US foreign policy.
“There has been an increase in interactions between Turkish and Russian society, including business connections and academic exchanges,” Yavuz observed. “The average Turkish citizen does not perceive Russia as a threat, but they do consider the United States to be the biggest security threat to the region” due to the invasion of Iraq and concerns over support for the Kurds.
The following transcript of our interview has been lightly edited.
Middle East Policy: What do you think led Erdoğan to make such a swift reversal and allow Sweden's NATO membership without assurances on the EU question?
M. Hakan Yavuz: Turkey's economy is currently facing significant challenges, placing Erdoğan in a position where he requires financial assistance from Western countries. Unfortunately for Turkey, Russia is unable to provide any aid due to its own limitations. Furthermore, Erdoğan's perception of Putin's weakness has been reinforced after the military rebellion in Russia, leading him to recognize that Putin is incapable of fulfilling his demands. The combination of Russia's weaknesses and Turkey's pressing economic needs has compelled Erdoğan to reconsider his previous decisions.
In addition to the economic crisis, Turkey is also facing a pressing need to modernize its air force, particularly by upgrading its F-16 military jets. This necessity arises from Turkey's recognition of the importance of maintaining a strong and up-to-date aerial defense capability.
MEP: The Europeans suspended negotiations with Turkey in 2016. Could you remind us of the main obstacles to Ankara’s membership?
Yavuz: Turkey was designated as a candidate country for EU membership in 1999, during the Helsinki Summit attended by EU leaders. Subsequently, in 2005, negotiations for membership commenced and continued until 2016. However, the process began to slow down as a result of the deterioration of democratization and the rule of law following the 2013 Gezi protests [over urban development in Istanbul]. In 2017, Erdoğan implemented a new constitutional reform, establishing an oppressive presidential system that undermined fundamental democratic principles, the rule of law, and human rights. This transformation essentially resulted in Turkey’s adopting a "sultanistic" system, with Erdoğan exerting control over the judiciary, legislation, and executive powers. The judiciary, in turn, became a potent tool for suppressing opposition voices.
In response to Turkey's democratic regression and erosion of the rule of law, the EU Parliament voted in 2019 to suspend membership negotiations. This vote is not legally binding. Turkey's persistent violation of core democratic and legal criteria has rendered it unfit for EU membership. Again, the EU did not officially suspend the membership negotiations with Turkey. The status of the membership negotiations remains uncertain and subject to further developments and decisions by the EU.
MEP: What are the key arguments against Turkish membership in the EU?
Yavuz: There are several reasons why numerous EU countries oppose Turkey's accession to the Union. First, Turkey's significantly lower economic status compared to the rest of the Union necessitates financial support from wealthier EU nations for its development. Given the existing debates surrounding EU spending and subsidy programs, providing funds to Turkey has become a contentious issue. Moreover, Turkey has notably struggled to establish a functional economic system and is widely recognized as the most corrupt country in Europe. The Turkish political economy is characterized by crony capitalism and kleptocracy, with the government under Erdoğan utilizing state resources for political gains, aimed at garnering more votes.
The second argument against Turkey's membership centers around its political culture, which is viewed as heavily influenced by Islamic principles and prone to fostering an authoritarian system. Certain EU countries perceive the European Union as a Christian Union and therefore oppose the inclusion of Turkey on these grounds.
The third argument relates to the demographic situation. Turkey possesses one of the youngest populations, and unemployment rates are alarmingly high. Consequently, there is concern that Turkish citizens may migrate en masse to Western Europe. Specifically, countries like Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, which already have sizable Turkish communities, are reluctant to support Turkish membership and instead propose establishing a special relationship with Turkey.
MEP: What benefits would Turkey receive from being part of the European Union? Would the Turkish people generally feel these benefits?
Yavuz: Resolving its identity crisis will prove beneficial for Turkey, a nation caught in a perpetual struggle. Turkey serves as a prime example of a country torn between two worlds. Its soul embodies the Islamic East, while its aspirations lean toward Europe. In essence, Turkey's modern history unfolds as a narrative of the ongoing conflict between its Islamic and Eastern heritage and its yearning for a European identity.
The fundamental ideology behind the establishment of the Republic of Turkey was to transform into a European nation-state and embrace a secular society. Essentially, Turkey aimed to break away from its religious and historical identity and adopt the characteristics of European society. Consequently, the founding fathers of the Republic envisioned Turkey's identity not as a reflection of its past or present, but rather as an aspiration to become a European nation-state. To reaffirm this European identity,
Turkey sought membership in various European institutions, driven by both its identity-related needs and national interests.
The ruling elite in Ankara considered it crucial to be recognized as a European country, primarily to gain access to European technology, investments, and the security protection offered against the Soviet Union. Joining the European Union was the logical and most significant objective in line with this founding philosophy of being acknowledged as a European nation, despite Turkey's core essence and identity being rooted in the East, particularly within Islam. However, the historical European identity was partly shaped in opposition to the Turkish/Muslim "other."
EU membership would enhance Turkey’s democratization and transform its authoritarian-friendly political culture. The membership would help to end the entrenched kleptocracy. And, finally, it would improve the economic conditions of the country.
MEP: Do you believe the Europeans would ever be satisfied that Turkey meets their criteria for membership as long as Erdoğan remains leader?
Yavuz: No, European social democratic parties previously exhibited greater support for Turkey's membership, emphasizing that the EU is not exclusively a Christian endeavor but rather an Enlightenment project founded on essential democratic values. Conversely, Christian Democrat parties and right-wing parties consistently sought to establish European identity in opposition to Islam and the Turkish presence. For these factions, Turkey's accession would challenge European identity, and they remain opposed to Turkey joining the EU. Presently, the ascent of populist nationalism impedes any possibility of Turkey's EU membership. Additionally, Turkey has been governed by Erdoğan's Islamist party since 2002, which staunchly rejects the founding principles of a secular-European Turkey and advocates for the nation to embrace its Islamist and Ottoman heritage. This neo-Ottomanist ideology positions Turkey in opposition to the West. Further, Erdoğan's ideology, coupled with his erratic and unpredictable policies, has further strained Turkey's relations with the Western world.
Erdoğan never truly believed in this founding philosophy. Instead, he exploited it to consolidate his power and challenge the establishment. He believes that Turkey's future lies in its past, specifically in an Islamic-Ottoman imperial image. As a result, he dismantled the Western-oriented Republic and established an oppressive and autocratic system in Turkey, characterized by the 2017 Constitution, which disregards democratic norms, the rule of law, and human rights principles. As long as Erdoğan remains at the helm of this kleptocratic system, Turkey's chances of joining the EU are slim. His perception of foreign policy revolves around safeguarding and enhancing his power while enriching himself. As long as Erdoğan remains in power, Turkey will remain an unreliable “ally” and the relations will not be based on shared norms but rather on short-term transactions that would serve for Erdoğan to remain in power.
MEP: In your analysis of the May election that appeared on mepc.org, you note, “While Erdoğan is responsible for the societal rot, the underlying condition of society must be addressed if Turkey is to break the cycle of strongman rule.” Does this mean that even without Erdoğan in the lead, the Europeans are very unlikely to see Turkey as a desirable member?
Yavuz: The predicament facing Turkey is undoubtedly complex. The underlying challenge lies within the existing political culture, which fosters authoritarianism, kleptocracy, and the perpetuation of primordial ethnic and religious communities at the expense of civic ones. Turkey, being a mosaic of communities and neighborhoods, exhibits a coexistence that is characterized by segregation. Erdoğan, in particular, has exacerbated these divisions, utilizing one community against another. The cohesion among these communities is fragile, primarily sustained by competition over state resources rather than a robust sense of shared memory or values. Under Erdoğan's leadership, an anti-Western and anti-American sentiment has gained significant traction as a powerful ideology for mobilizing the masses. Given this situation, it is unlikely that any European country would support Turkey's EU membership aspirations.
For Turkey to pursue EU membership, it must transform into a "decent society" and prioritize the rule of law. However, under Erdoğan's rule, Turkey has veered away from democratic and civic values, moving in an unfavorable direction.
MEP: What specific aspects of this societal rot directly harm Turkey’s chances of joining the EU? Could this be overcome by a good-faith effort by both sides to resume the process? Or must there be long-term social change for this to go anywhere?
Yavuz: The primary challenge plaguing present-day Turkey lies in the severe polarization of communities and the alarming absence of shared moral values. The public square of Turkey stands bare, lacking the principles that bind a society together. As a predominantly Muslim country, our religious practices often flourish in rituals but fall short in fostering a robust sense of public morality. Under Erdoğan's leadership, Islam has undergone a transformation, morphing into an ideological identity and oppositional force against the foundational philosophy of the Republic. However, this version of Islam lacks a strong ethical core. Tragically, Turkey has become more aligned with Islamic principles under Erdoğan's rule, but has witnessed a decline in ethical standards. Disturbingly, the number of court cases has surged by 150 percent, while corruption has pervaded various sectors, particularly within the judiciary. In fact, Turkey ranks a dismal 101 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Index, making it the most corrupt nation in Europe. This issue cannot be attributed solely to the political elite; the rot permeates society at large.
MEP: During the campaign, many observers noted the anti-Western rhetoric of Erdoğan and his allies. Does this anti-Westernism indicate that there could be substantial opposition to joining Europe among the political class or even the public? Or would they follow Erdoğan’s lead if he were able to restart negotiations?
Yavuz: I have penned a political biography of Erdoğan, delving into the origins of his political ideology. He emerges from an Islamist tradition that deliberately positions itself in opposition to the West, particularly the secular and European-oriented founding principles laid down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For Erdoğan and his circle, their identity is deeply rooted in an Ottoman-influenced brand of Islamism, redefining this version of Islam in contrast to Western values. As a result, Turkey has become one of the most fervently anti-American countries in the region, with Erdoğan actively promoting this anti-American sentiment. However, it is noteworthy that a majority of Islamists and their leaders support maintaining close relations with Europe, primarily driven by economic benefits. Furthermore, they prefer their children to receive education in Western countries.
When considering the overall population, as demonstrated in recent elections, Erdoğan secured 52 percent of the vote, while the pro-EU camp, also known as the Table of Six, garnered 48.2 percent of the vote. I would argue that the majority of Turks and Kurds still envision their future within Europe. This sentiment is particularly strong among secular Turks, who perceive EU membership as the sole solution to the country's problems. However, I doubt Erdoğan genuinely desires Turkey to join the EU, as he does not espouse the values of liberal democracy or uphold the functioning rule of law. This is evident in his continued imprisonment of civil society activist Osman Kavala and popular Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.
MEP: To overcome suspicions that he would put Ankara too close to the Western orbit, the opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, had to stress that Turkey’s path is “neither East nor West.” Is it possible for Turkey both to maintain this strategic position and to win EU membership?
Yavuz: Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, holds the position of chairman in the Republican People's Party (CHP). The CHP, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has been instrumental in implementing numerous secularizing reforms within Turkey. Kilicdaroglu remains steadfast in his commitment to the founding philosophy of the Republic and supports Turkey's alignment with the West. Considering Turkey's historical background, its economic circumstances, and the inclinations of the new generation, it is evident that Turkey cannot relinquish its European orientation.
In addition to pursuing full membership, there exist alternative options for Turkey's relationship with the EU. Among these, the proposed special relationship suggested by Angela Merkel may prove to be the most favorable choice for both parties involved.
MEP: Do you see this “neither East nor West” position as a strength that no Turkish leader should be expected to give up? Is it a position that can have positive effects for the West, such as allowing mediation with Russia or other non-Western states? Or must Turkey profoundly change its foreign policy (and reconceptualize its interests) in order to join the union?
Yavuz: Following Russia's actions in Ukraine and the internal rebellion within its security forces, Putin's position has weakened considerably. Erdoğan finds himself in a challenging position, as he neither wants to align closely with Putin nor sever economic ties with Russia. Interestingly, the relationship between Turkey and Russia has deepened significantly over the past two decades, particularly since Russia's imposition of sanctions. Turkey remains Russia's sole gateway to the West in the aftermath of these sanctions.
Throughout history, Turkey and Russia have often been at odds rather than cooperating. The expansion of Russia into the Caucasus and the Balkans was a key factor contributing to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Within Russia, there are still historic Turkic populations who look to Turkey for protection. For example, the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-Muslim group, collaborate closely with Turkey, which does not recognize the occupation of Crimea. Historical and ethnic considerations impose constraints on the relations between Russia and Turkey.
Additionally, the Turkish economy requires a substantial economic boost, and Russia is not currently in a position to provide such support to Turkey. For Erdoğan, his political survival takes precedence, and he is willing to shift alliances if it serves his own interests. Consequently, Turkey's current foreign policy primarily revolves around maintaining Erdoğan's hold on power. Since Russia cannot provide economic support, Erdoğan will maintain transactional relations with Europe.
MEP: The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, says Sweden’s accession to NATO should not be linked to Turkey’s EU bid. Should Turkey fear that there is a double standard in Europe and that its membership bid will always be a can kicked down the road?
Yavuz: Erdoğan is acutely aware that Turkey does not meet the necessary requirements for EU membership. However, recognizing the prevailing pro-EU sentiment among the public, he feigns support for EU integration. In reality, Erdoğan has established a regime centered around his own authority, effectively creating a one-man rule in Turkey. The most alarming consequence of his leadership has been the erosion and politicization of the judiciary, which he manipulates as a means to persecute his opposition.
Erdoğan actively portrays himself as a leader of the Islamic world, often taking a prominent stance and protesting against any perceived attack on sacred Islamic symbols. This also plays very well inside Turkey. His supporters share a vision of Islamic unity, envisioning Turkey as its leader. Consequently, when incidents such as the burning of the Qur'an occurred in Sweden, Erdoğan seized the opportunity to build his case against Sweden's EU membership. Before departing the NATO summit, he even declared that Turkey would only remove its veto against Sweden's membership if the EU resumed membership talks with Turkey. However, such statements lack any real connection or relevance.
In reality, Turkey's economy is in dire straits, and Erdoğan recognizes that the West is the primary source of support to revitalize it. Despite his rhetoric, Turkey lacks the capability to halt Sweden's membership process. Erdoğan's bark is far louder than his bite, and his statements should be viewed with skepticism. I had previously expressed in May that Turkey is not in a position to impede Sweden's membership. Erdoğan's actions are driven more by political posturing than genuine influence.
MEP: After the election, Erdoğan made some moves that suggested he was tacking toward moderation on economic policy. Have there been any substantial changes to his rule in the six weeks since his victory?
Yavuz: Indeed, the composition of Erdoğan's new cabinet appears to be a comparatively more rational group than its predecessor. However, it is essential to recognize that this cabinet merely carries out Erdoğan's directives. Erdoğan staunchly believes that he is the foremost authority on economics, with his most prominent theory attributing inflation to interest rates. To substantiate his theory, he systematically dismantled the Turkish Central Bank, leaving Turkey in a worse situation than ever before.
While there have been indications that Erdoğan may entrust the management of the economy to Mehmet Simsek, doubts linger. Given our knowledge of Erdoğan's tendencies, it is highly likely that he will ultimately dismiss Simsek, along with the new president of the Central Bank, and assign blame for the economic collapse to them.
On a positive note, the new Foreign Minister exhibits a more reasonable approach compared to their predecessor, and the Minister of Interior surpasses the previous incumbent in terms of decency and following the rules. However, I must emphasize my lack of optimism for Turkey's future as long as Erdoğan retains his position as the de facto "sultan" of the country. Erdoğan fundamentally disregards public morality, transparency, and the basic principles of the rule of law. Moreover, Turkish society is afflicted by moral decay and exhibits greater fragmentation than in previous times.
MEP: What do you make of Erdoğan’s relations with Putin? Do you think even if these leaders leave the stage, Turkey would remain closer to Russia?
Yavuz: I appreciate your distinguishing between leaders' interests and national interests. Erdoğan and Putin are both authoritarian leaders who prioritize their own power over the interests of their respective nations. Turkey's recent foreign policy has been primarily aimed at ensuring the survival of Erdoğan's regime, which ultimately goes against Turkey's long-term national interest. Similar to Erdoğan, Putin possesses an inflated sense of self as a Czar or Sultan, and both leaders aspire to restore their countries to greatness. However, on a societal level, there has been an increase in interactions between Turkish and Russian society, including business connections and academic exchanges.
The average Turkish citizen does not perceive Russia as a threat, but they do consider the United States to be the biggest security threat to the region. In the past, Turkey was known for its pro-American sentiment. However, three factors have led to a significant shift in this perception. First, the US invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the destabilization of the Iraqi state and the emergence of a Kurdish entity, coupled with US support for Syrian Kurdish organizations aligned with the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist guerrilla group based in Turkey. The prevailing belief in Turkey is that the US aims to divide the region and support the establishment of an independent Kurdish state within Turkey's borders.
Second, the US's endorsement of Israeli apartheid policies in Palestine and its contribution to the destruction of Palestinian society is highly unpopular among all segments of Turkish society. Last, Erdoğan and his Islamist ideology have played a crucial role in mobilizing anti-American sentiment in Turkey. Even if Erdoğan were to leave office, the relationship between Turkey and the US would not easily return to its previous state. Turkey has grown more self-confident and is gradually seeking to assert itself within its region.