Looking for 'a way out': Turkey mulls a 'Trexit'

It is a relationship defined by awe and anger, but now a new blow threatens Turkey-Europe relations. What's next, and why it matters to the world.

Ankara slams Council of Europe's decision to downgrade its standing

It is a time of deep uncertainty in Turkey. A woman watches an anti-government protest from a tram window in Istanbul, April 23, 2017. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

The question comes, almost without fail, to any Westerner who visits this Turkey: "What do they think of us where you're from?"

Some of those asking are genuinely curious. However proud they are to be Turkish, there is an element of envy of the opportunities they believe life in the U.S. or Europe might offer. More questions usually follow about how they could move to where you're from.

Others are genuinely suspicious. They believe the West — the U.S. and Europe — is pulling strings invisible to civilian eyes. It might seem easy to dismiss the conspiracy theories so many here subscribe to. But those who are convinced there is an ever-evolving plot to keep Muslim countries down, including this one, will rattle off examples like Iran and Iraq whose futures were radically altered by outside intervention. 

It is that combination of awe and anger that defines Turkey's relationship with the West. Increasingly, the anger is overshadowing the awe.

Turkey's representative at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during Tuesday's vote in Strasbourg, France, on April 25, 2017. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

Tuesday's vote by the Council of Europe to put Turkey back on its list of monitored countries — the first European country to carry that difficult distinction, and one Turkey hasn't faced in more than a decade — will give the suspicious minds more to be consumed by.

The move angered Turkey's leadership. The Foreign Affairs Ministry called it a "political operation" that was "ill-intentioned and unjust." The country's EU Minister, Omer Celik, called it "a historic mistake."

Warning signs

In its report, the COE said it understands the threats and stress Turkey has been under — the war in neighbouring Syria, terror attacks and the attempt to overthrow the government last summer. But it cautioned that the moves Turkey has made in the past eight months, during the state of emergency, has "gone far beyond what is necessary and proportionate."

Just this morning, more than a thousand people were detained across Turkey in police raids targeting those the government believes may have been behind the attempted coup in July.

The COE was created to promote European culture and human rights, and its decision doesn't mean Turkey's bid to join the European Union is done. But this is another mark against Turkey's membership chances and another strong warning of the fragility of the friendship — one that stability in the region relies on heavily. 

How did we get here?

Turkey is a founding member of the very group it now finds itself on the fringes of. In 2004, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister, was himself in the same room where the members voted this week. There were smiles and acceptance. That was the year the council promoted Turkey from monitoring to the dialogue stage, with just a few issues to iron out. 

Turkey calls it a 'historic mistake' for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to put it back on the monitoring list and says only half the members were present at the vote in Strasbourg. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

But Turkey sat at that stage for 13 years before being downgraded back to monitoring status. Now the COE expects to send rapporteurs to visit Turkey and regularly track its progress. But with the current state of the relationship, and given Erdogan's response to election monitors watching Turkey's referendum to expand his presidential powers earlier this month, Ankara may not even allow them in the country and won't likely listen to any of their concerns.

The long wait since 2004 — only to be sent back to where it began — it is still much shorter than the decades Turkey has been waiting to join the EU.

It's hard for many to shake the feeling Europe is stringing along this majority-Muslim country.

"With Europe making it clear that a large, overwhelmingly Muslim nation was not welcome, public support in Turkey for the EU project, which was as high as 73 per cent in 2004, registered as low as 40 per cent in 2007, leaving the country with no external anchor for reform," Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook wrote in the Washington Post.

In other words, Turkey's government had no incentive to keep making the changes Europe wanted. Membership may have its privileges, but many Turks can't see what they are anymore. 

'Trexit' threats

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Erdogan hinted again that Turkey could leave the EU talks altogether.

"If they're not acting sincerely, we have to find a way out. Why should we wait any longer?" Erdogan said. "We're talking about 54 years."

In an interview with Reuters Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows what he says is proof of European bias against Turkey: a picture of a European election monitor in front a PKK flag. Turkey, the EU and the U.S. consider the PKK a terrorist group. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Another reminder that a so-called Trexit could come even before Turkey actually joins the union.

And while it may just be rhetoric, at some point either Europe or Turkey will have to make a choice.

As the two lurch from crisis to crisis, Cook says Washington also needs to take some blame about the state of affairs in Turkey — that with its need to keep Turkey content as a strategic ally, the United States has given this country's leadership more leeway than it might otherwise have.

"Successive U.S. administrations have been loath to publicly criticize Erdogan and [his party] the AKP for their domestic excesses," Cook wrote.

What next?

Billions of dollars of trade between them and the millions of refugees Europe wants Turkey to keep are two of the strongest strings holding this relationship together.

Neither can really afford to lose the other, but both sides will likely keep pretending they can. One side screams Islamophobia, the other dictatorship.

The game goes on; the region continues to rumble.

About the Author

Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She recently returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey.


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