BRUSSELS (Reuters) - After stifling initial groans of dismay, European policymakers are looking for a silver lining for EU-Turkey relations in the emphatic election victory of President Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party.
At least Ankara will now have a strong, stable government able to implement agreements with the European Union to manage millions of refugees from Syria and other migrants, and perhaps to help advance a peace settlement on Cyprus.
“The result shows Turks have a very keen interest in stability,” said a senior EU official involved in negotiations with Turkey. “Erdogan wants to strengthen ties with the EU and now he can feel more at ease at home.”
EU officials critical of Erdogan’s pre-poll crackdown on Kurdish separatist guerrillas and creeping authoritarianism at home say the clear result should make it easier to work with a fully empowered government rather than wait months for a fractious coalition to form.
“In June, after AKP lost its majority, perhaps some in the Turkish opposition and the European institutions were thinking this would be the beginning of the end (for Erdogan),” said Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey.
“But he’s a survivor. We’re back to reality that he is here to stay and also in the EU institutions, people had better start dealing with this reality,” the Dutch Labour lawmaker said.
Piri is able to say aloud what senior EU policymakers involved with Turkey are saying privately.
They may not like what a delayed European Commission report calls Erdogan’s “backsliding” on the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, media freedom and civil rights, but they have more pressing common interests to tackle with Turkey.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made that clear by visiting Istanbul to meet Erdogan weeks before Sunday’s election, putting a solution to the refugee crisis that is destabilising the EU and especially her own country ahead of human rights concerns.
More than half a million refugees and other migrants have entered the EU in an uncontrolled flow from Turkey this year. Thousands have drowned and many more have risked their lives in the hands of traffickers based in Turkey.
The EU offered Turkey 3 billion euros in financial aid last month to keep some 2.2 million Syrian refugees on its soil, as well as speeded up visa liberalisation for Turks visiting Europe and a revitalisation of Ankara’s long-stalled membership bid.
“The EU is in a bit of an awkward position after this result. A lot of people here perceive that we helped AKP,” an EU diplomat based in the Turkish capital said.
In public, EU leaders have been careful to balance praise for the conduct of a well-organised election with criticism of Turkey’s restrictions on the media, a week after security forces stormed and shut down two critical TV stations and two opposition newspapers.
In his congratulations letter to Erdogan, European Council President Donald Tusk welcomed the high voter turnout and democratic choice, but also noted the “difficult security environment” and “increasingly restrictive media situation”.
“I trust that every effort will now be made to build
confidence in the society, strengthen the rule of law and fundamental freedoms and engage constructively with the political opposition,” Tusk wrote. He also expressed hope that Turkey could now restart the peace process with Kurdish guerrillas, derailed in the security crackdown of recent months.
Turkey began EU accession talks in 2005 but has made scant progress. Many member states are not eager to see such a large, mostly Muslim country as a member.
The Cypriot government has blocked several negotiating areas to demand that Turkey open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus, and Ankara’s record on basic freedoms has gone into reverse over the last two or three years, EU experts say.
Negotiations between Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders on reuniting the island divided since 1974 are making progress and EU officials see the best chance for a deal since Cyprus joined the EU in 2004. That would remove a major obstacle in Turkey’s negotiations with Brussels, though many hurdles remain.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who postponed the release of a critical annual report on Ankara’s progress until after the election, told EU lawmakers last week: “Whether we like it or not, we have to work with Turkey.”
The report is finally due out on Thursday, but lawmaker Piri said Merkel and Juncker had sent a dangerous message by appearing to look away from Turkey’s domestic record for the sake of geopolitical interests.
“That set a bad precedent. The European Parliament will not look away,” she said.
The senior EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said AKP’s sweeping victory could give second wind to pro-market economic reforms to improve trade ties with the EU, since other markets in the Gulf and the Middle East looked less promising. Ankara is keen to widen its customs union with the EU to trade in services and ensure fair access if Brussels and Washington strike a transatlantic free trade deal.
His optimistic view of Turkey’s outlook under a turbo-charged Erdogan mirrors the reaction in financial markets, which were critical of Erdogan’s economic policies and pressure on the Turkish central bank but surged on the clear AKP victory because it ended uncertainty.
Yet not all experts are convinced that smooth relations lie ahead. Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara now with the Carnegie Europe think-tank, said Europe’s relations with Turkey were likely to enter “rough waters” because the sharp deterioration in the rule of law was set to continue. Things could get more tense if Erdogan presses his plan to change the constitution and take executive powers.
“The EU’s ill-conceived approach on the refugee action plan is unlikely to work because the price will now go beyond what the EU can deliver,” Pierini said.
Sinan Ulgen, a Turkish scholar with Carnegie Europe, said much would depend on whether Erdogan was able to adjust Turkish policy on Syria, the civil war next door, where Russia’s month-old bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad has transformed the battlefield.
So far Turkey has failed to achieve any of its three goals in Syria: to remove Assad, to prevent Syrian Kurds uniting three provinces under their rule and to create “safe zones” for displaced persons inside Syria along the Turkish border.
“There is a need obviously for a revision of Turkish policy because with the Russian intervention, the Assad regime is not going to crumble,” he said.
Ankara’s policy is a challenge for the United States, which has a close strategic relationship with NATO member Turkey but is stymied by Turkish opposition to its support for Syrian Kurds to fight Islamic State militants in Syria.
“This (result) makes more difficult a strategy of using the Kurds against IS because AKP appeals to anti-Kurd sentiments,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and sometime policy advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama.
Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels and Jonny Hogg in Ankara; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Peter Graff