Turkey, Has It Finally Left the West?

In October 2021, the Turkish president Erdogan sparked a brief diplomatic crisis when he announced that the ambassadors of ten Western countries, including the United States, France and Germany would no longer be welcome in Turkey. It was a truly extraordinary development. But while a face-saving solution was quickly found, the incident tipped off a far more serious problem that could well mark the end of Turkey's century-long orientation on Europe and the West.

By Marcus Beth Shao

Strategic Orientation and Turkey

One of the most interesting aspects of international relations is the way in which states forge a strategic orientation. This is driven by a combination of geographic, ethnic, religious, economic, political, and security factors. And while such ties may become a fundamental part of the state’s identity, they can change over time. Sometimes there will be a sudden break, for example a revolution. At other times, it can be a far slower process. One of the most interesting examples is Turkey.

Over the past century the country has pursued a European and Western orientation. However, this orientation is now increasingly in doubt. In recent years, the relationship between Turkey and its key Western partners has become increasingly estranged, to the point where real questions are now being raised as to whether or for how much longer Turkey can really be considered part of the West.

This was underscored in late October 2021 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his government was preparing to declare ten Western ambassadors persona non grata, in essence announcing that they are no longer welcome in his country. While the crisis was seemingly resolved, in truth the underlying issues remain very much in place.

Erdogan and Turkey’s EU Integration

Since 1999, Turkey appeared to make real progress on its path to EU-accession. Ironically, it was the election of a religiously minded administration in November 2002 that changed things. The victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been imprisoned for Islamic sedition, seemingly held a new direction for Turkey.

Seeing EU-membership as a way to open up religious freedom and challenge the power of the Turkish military, Erdogan gave new impetus to solving the issue of Cyprus and introduce political reforms. This paid off in 2005 when Turkey formally opened EU-membership discussions. But problems soon set in.

Having emerged as a pro-European reformist, Erdogan’s political outlook began to change. Alongside growing autocratic tendencies, human right norms were rolled back, and media-freedoms were curtailed. This came to head in May 2013 when massive protests erupted across Turkey, sparking a harsh crackdown. Three years later, elements within the military launched an attempted coup against the Erdogan administration.

Why the Osman Kavala Case is Important

While blaming the uprising on a religious opponent based in the US, Erdogan launched a major purge of suspected opposition. Tens of thousands were arrested and hundreds of thousands were fired from their jobs. One of those arrested was Osman Kavala, a wealthy Turkish businessman and philanthropist who set up several non-governmental organizations in the field of human rights, culture, and environmental protection.

Charged with overthrowing the government and the constitutional order, Osman Kavala was held in pre-trial detention. After his detention was repeatedly extended by Turkish courts, he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In December 2019 the court unanimously ruled that he had been deprived of his right of liberty and timely justice and ordered he immediately be released. However, despite its obligation as a member of the Council of Europe to adhere to the rulings of the ECHR, Turkey refused to set him free.

As a result, the Council of Europe announced in September in 2021 that it would begin proceedings against Turkey if Kavala would not be released by the end of November. This could ultimately lead to Turkey’s suspension from the organization or even its expulsion. It was these events that led the ambassadors of ten countries, including those of the US and France, to sign a joint letter calling on the Turkish government to abide by the European court’s ruling. As the ambassadors noted, Turkey’s refusal to implement the ruling undermined democracy and the rule of law in the country.

Infuriated by the letter and action, Erdogan announced that the ambassadors were no longer welcome in the country. Almost immediately talk grew of a major crisis, but amidst pressure on the Turkish Lira and speculation of a permanent rapture with key allies, the issue was quickly defused when the US and others released a statement, announcing that they abided by the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, which prohibits foreign diplomats from intervening in the internal affairs of host states. Although this could in fact be read as a justification for their letter, which minded Turkey on its international obligations, it also provided enough ambiguity to allow the Turkish government to back down. It withdrew the threat to expel the ambassadors, stating that it was satisfied that the countries in question had ”learned their lessons” and that they would be more careful from now on.

What Will the West Do About Turkey?

While it is tempting to think that the crisis is averted and the matter now closed, in truth the issue of the ambassadors was nearly a sight-show. The crisis is still very much ongoing.

First of all, even though Turkey appeared to back down, Erdogan’s announcement further emphasized the expanding rift between Turkey and its western partners. Next to concerns and differences over Turkey’s domestic trajectory, concerns also grow over Ankara’s foreign policies. Most warningly, in recent years Erdogan forged a close relationship with Russia. At the same time, Erdogan is increasingly willing to blame Turkey’s growing problems on the West and use it to deflect from Turkey’s economic difficulties. Europe and the US are no longer seen as allies, instead, they are now presented as opponents.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the dispute also shows just how little Turkey now seems to care about sticking to the basic rules and values of the Western club. Adherence to the rulings of the ECHR is not only a fundamental prerequisite of membership of the Council of Europe, but it is also a fundamental requirement for EU membership. In this sense there is an argument being made that what we are now seeing could well be the beginning of the final stages of Turkeys estrangement from the West.

But will it actually happen? As strange as it may seem, the decision does not really rest with Turkey. In truth, writers such as [1] Dursun-Özkanca (2019) and [2] Christofis (2021) believe that it has already broken with the West. Instead, the decision of a final political separation, really rests with the EU and US. Do they want to allow that final breakup to happen? And it is here we see the most important debate.

On the one hand, there is a growing opinion that the time has come to make the break. Proponents of this view argue that Turkey can no longer be regarded as an ally, let alone a country that shares fundamental values with its partners. EU-membership talks should stop, and Turkey should be suspended if not be expelled from the Council of Europe if it does not comply with its obligations. Some even call Turkey to be thrown out of NATO.

However, against this argument are the pragmatists. They agree that the EU-accession talks have now come to a hold and that Turkey is no longer a realistic candidate for membership. The pragmatists argue that there is little sense in breaking the relationship completely. As they see it, the situation will be much worse if Turkey is cut loose. Ankara would ultimately cement a partnership with other troublesome powers like Russia and China. It could also have negative consequences in the Muslim world, where many would understand it as a final prove that the West is opposed to Islam. According to the pragmatist, it is far better to keep Turkey in the club, even only in name, than to force it out.

And, then there are the optimists. While they despair of Turkey under Erdogan, they hope the time may come when Turkey gets back on the European track. In their view its far better to keep this possibility alive and to keep encouraging pro-European forces in Turkey than to make the break and reduce the choice to either religious or secular nationalism. Although even in this optimist camp, many now wonder whether Turkey has passed the point of no return.

The prevailing optimist view is that, for all the problems Turkey brings to the table, it is better to keep it part of the West, even in name only, than force a final split. The problem is that with every new crisis the argument becomes harder to sustain. In fact, if the Turkish government continues to choose to ignore the ECHR, something will have to be done, if not only to protect the integrity of the body that is so important for the protection of human rights across Europe. This is why the Osman Kavala case is so important. It may yet force a final decision to be made on issues that would fundamentally effect Turkey’s strategic orientation to the West.

The Future of Turkey and the West

Despite emerging as a secular republic with a European orientation and joining key Western organizations, Turkey has always had a complex relationship with the West. However, in the past decade or so, this has been thrown into doubt in unprecedented ways. Quite apart from the domestic challenges such as the erosion of democratic values and human rights norms, Turkey also forged an increasingly ultra-nationalistic path and build close ties with Russia. The question now is whether almost a century after its establishment, Turkey is about to take the final steps to break up relations or whether for all that obvious frustration with Ankara, the US and EU will let that happen…

[1] Dursun-Özkanca, O. (2019). Turkey–West Relations: The Politics of Intra-alliance Opposition. In O. Dursun-Özkanca. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Christofis, N. (2021). Erdogan’s ‘New’ Turkey: Attempted Coup d’état and the Acceleration of Political Crisis. In N. Christofis, Erdogan’s ‘New’ Turkey: Attempted Coup d’état and the Acceleration of Political Crisis. Routledge.