When Turkey first applied for full membership in the European Union in 1987, the world was an entirely different place -- even the rich club had a different name: the European Economic Community. U.S. President Ronald Reagan had undergone minor surgery; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been re-elected for a third term; Macau and Hong Kong were, respectively, Portuguese and British territory; the Berlin Wall was up and running; the demonstrations at the Tiananmen Square were a couple of years away; the Iran-Contra affair was in the headlines; the First Intifada had just begun; and what are today Czech Republic and Slovakia were Czechoslovakia.
In March 2003, just a few months after he was elected Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey was "very much ready to be part of the European Union family." In October 2005, formal accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU began.
Today, 31 years after the first date, the alliance seems to be broken, with no signs in the foreseeable future of a marriage between two perfectly unsuitable adults. Knowing that, both sides in the past decade have played an unpleasant diplomatic game of pretension: not be the one that throws away the ring. This boring opera buffa is no longer sustainable.
Turkey's democratic deficit has grown just too bitterly huge to make it compatible with Europe's democratic culture. According to the advocacy group Freedom House:
In Freedom House's democracy index, Turkey belongs to the group of "not free" countries, performing worse than "partly free" countries including Mali, Nicaragua and Kenya. The EU is certainly not a club of the "not free."
"In addition to its dire consequences for detained Turkish citizens, shuttered media outlets, and seized businesses, the chaotic purge has become intertwined with an offensive against the Kurdish minority, which in turn has fueled Turkey's diplomatic and military interventions in neighboring Syria and Iraq."
Most recently, a legal dispute between Turkey and the EU highlighted, once again, the huge disparity between the understanding of the rule of law in Turkish and European democratic cultures. This time, Turkey and the EU clashed over the rights of a prominent Kurdish politician who has been in jail on flimsy charges of terror. In a November verdict, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), to which Turkey is a signatory, ruled that Turkey should swiftly process Selahattin Demirtaş's case; the court said his pre-trial detention had gone on longer than could be justified. A Turkish court, however, ignoring the ECHR's verdict, ruled against Demirtaş's release from prison. The Turkish court's decision was a clear violation of the Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution:
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu described the ECHR ruling as motivated by politics, not the law, and asserted that the case would be determined by Turkey's courts.
"In the case of a conflict between international agreements in the area of fundamental rights and freedoms duly put into effect and the domestic laws due to differences in provisions on the same matter, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail."
Just as there cannot be a "not free" member of the EU, there cannot be a member that blatantly ignores ECHR's rulings.
Fortunately, there have been signs from Brussels that the "show must not go on." In April 2017, the European Parliament called for a formal suspension of Turkey's EU membership bid, which was already effectively frozen. In September 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she will seek an end to Turkey's membership talks.
More recently, in November, the official overseeing the EU's future enlargement said that, in the long term, it would be "more honest" for the bloc to give up talks on membership for Turkey. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Kahn toldGerman daily Die Welt, "I think that, in the long term, it would be more honest for Turkey and the EU to go down new roads and end the accession talks ... Turkish membership in the European Union is not realistic in the foreseeable future." Kahn's was honest talk, calling a cat a cat.
In fact, a month earlier than Kahn's comments, President Erdoğan proposed a most realistic solution – although not for reasons of honesty, but merely for pre-election bluffing. Evidently he is signalling exasperation with the election process. Erdogan seems to be trying to appeal to the EU-weary, nationalistic voters ahead of Turkey's municipal elections on March 31, 2019 that Europe's reluctance to let Turkey into the EU is based, supposedly, on "Islamophobia". In an October speech, Erdoğan said he would consider putting Turkey's long-stalled bid to join the EU to a referendum.
Good idea, assuming that Turkey's most popular ever leader should campaign for Leave (the negotiations). All the same, as always, Erdoğan was bluffing, in a seeming effort to remind EU's leaders of Turkey's "strategic value" for Europe. At the same time, he was playing the tough man to his usually xenophobic, conservative voter base that has grown weary of being humiliated by 'infidel Europe.'
This author believes that there should be simultaneous EU and Turkish referenda asking the Europeans if they endorse an eventual Turkish membership, and at the same time asking the Turks whether they want to drop their bid to join. A "No" vote triumphing in either referendum should suffice formally to end Turkey's membership process; two "Yes" votes would mean the show must go on, that the audience is happy with the opera buffa.
The unconvincing pretention that Turkey should be "kept at bay" for strategic reasons is dishonest.
"Pulling the plug" is honest but probably not practical. No one will wish to take that historic responsibility. In addition, polling numbers suggest a decline in Turkish public opinion for membership. On the other side, in the EU, the sympathy for Turkish membership is dramatically lower than in previous years. Support for Turkey's entrance, for instance, is at 8% in France, 5% in Germany, 8% in the UK, 5% in Denmark, 7% in Sweden and 5% in Finland. There is no way the EU average could surpass the 50% threshold.
So, let the club members and the applicant decide on a membership bid for a marriage that will never work.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from the country's most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.