It has been over 3 months since the attempted coup of 15th July 2016 against state institutions and the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which left 240 people dead and the nation of Turkey in paranoia. Since then, President Erdogan has been ruthless in his dissident crackdown, with the search for anyone affiliated with Fetullah Terror Organisation (FETÖ), the so-called “Gülenists”, said to have been responsible for the attempted government coup. Tens of thousands of teachers, judges, soldiers, civil servants, journalists and lawyers have been detained or arrested for questioning, including the purging of close to 100,000 people from government positions, schools and universities, and the shut down of 160 media outlets and 2000 educational systems.
EU members are among the most critical concerning Erdogan’s crackdown on government and the civil service. Hardly concealing their disapproval of the purges, High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, two senior EU officials, urged the president to respect the rule of law and warned against Turkey’s suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights. Suspected anti-Erdogan sentiment within the EU is also a potential factor at play, according to Bahadir Kaleagasi, the EU representative of Turkey’s leading business organisation, Tusiad. Kaleagasi reported that the EU’s slow process of Turkish membership might be influenced by anti-Erdogan feelings. Yet Kaleagasi also pointed out that Turkey’s efforts to become a permanent EU member have helped the nation evolve towards democracy. “Turkey is the most important external relations success in EU history”, he said. Optimism about Turkish democracy in light of the overwhelming popular opposition to the attempted coup could be said to have dissipated following this witch hunt-like response by Erdogan and the AKP.
Meanwhile, what does Turkey’s military involvement in Syria raise about its issues with EU membership and the future of a Syrian agreement? Operation Euphrates Shield launched in cooperation with Turkish-backed rebels in northern Syria began on 24th August, aimed at bolstering border security, supporting coalition forces and the threat of terrorist organisations including ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). However, Turkey’s invention in northern Syria is also largely a fight against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). According to Turkey, the YPG, which has extended its sphere of influence in northern Syria, is the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group operating within Turkey. Ankara considers Turkish expansions on the border of Syria a national threat to its security and stability. Turkey’s intervention has been met with mixed sentiments. The Syrian foreign ministry released a statement on 25th August condemning “this blatant breach of its sovereignty”, and claiming that the Turks are not fighting terrorism by substituting ISIS with other terrorist groups backed directly by Turkey. The European Commission has condemned the role of the YPG, insisting that they remain on the east bank of the Euphrates River, recognising at least partly the Turkish cause. Yet both France and Germany have pointed out, the “contradictory” military operation in Syria, criticising Turkey’s actions against the YPG.
Turkey has also threatened to walk away from its commitment to help with the ongoing migrant crisis, in light of the EU’s delay in securing visa-free travel within the Schengen Area for Turkish citizens. In March, Turkey agreed to stop illegal immigrants crossing into Greece in exchange for aid for refugees, accelerated EU membership talks and the promise of visa-free travel across the 26 countries of the mostly-EU Schengen zone. Despite Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik claiming that the purging of public servants in wake of the failed coup attempt has caused no institutional weakness to the relationship between Turkey and the EU, the deadlock on the migration deal seems to be detrimental to current cooperation between the two parties.
At the moment a Syrian agreement seems unlikely, and although Erdogan has slowly begun releasing his grip on civil services and press censorship, the nation’s democracy has undoubtedly been shaken. As for EU membership, Turkey has clearly put pressure upon the institution by halting the patrolling of Greece’s borders and refusing to regulate migration flows into Europe until the EU holds its promise of visa-free travel. But is it enough to pressure the EU into speeding up the membership process for Turkey?