Turkey’s EU accession process has gone on for 14 years but there is little to show for it.

The Turkish elephant in the room… people have been talking about it for years but now it has grown too large to ignore. So what do NATO, the US and the EU intend to do?

Turkey’s EU accession process has gone on for 14 years but there is little to show for it, either in the form of accession chapters that have been opened or closed or a reciprocal reform process in Turkey. The EU in its latest progress report is unequivocal: Turkey’s accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill and no further work towards the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen.

The 116-page report contains a whole litany of failings, quaintly termed “backsliding,” which range from human and fundamental rights, the judicial system and media to economic and monetary policy, public procurement and corruption. Nevertheless, the EU maintains a policy of what it terms “broad strategic engagement.”

NATO, in its charter, states that members will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being.

The criteria for EU membership include a guarantee for democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. Since the establishment of an executive presidency last June, where parliament has been sidelined in favor of government by decree, Turkey – under President Tayyip Erdogan – has followed a path of divergence from NATO and the EU norms.

THE FACTS speak for themselves. Turkey is known as the world’s largest jailer of journalists, with an estimated 160 behind bars. Since the attempted coup three years ago, more than 152,000 civil servants have been dismissed and 155,000 people have been detained, often on an arbitrary basis. There are still 57,000 in prison either without an indictment or awaiting trial.

There are at present 396 prisons in Turkey with a capacity for 220,000 prisoners, but they now have to accommodate 260,000. To alleviate overcrowding, the Turkish Ministry of Justice has plans to build a further 193 new prisons by 2023. Over 20% of the prison population is incarcerated on terrorism-related charges, which in Turkey is broadly defined. For example, 14 employees of the independent daily Cumhuriyet – columnists, a cartoonist and executives – were convicted last April of aiding the PKK and the Gülen movement – which in Turkey is also considered a terrorist organization – because of their coverage.

On the foreign policy front, Turkey has embarked on a perilous course, which has brought it on a collision course with its Western allies. Already in 2012 in a keynote speech at the Istanbul Forum, Erdogan’s chief adviser (and now spokesman) Ibrahim Kalin advocated a new geopolitical framework that excluded a Eurocentric world view. Two years later, another senior adviser, Yigit Bulut, argued that Turkey should cut its relations with Europe and instead focus on the US and China, as well as find new opportunities with Russia. Ankara’s decision in 2015 to cancel the deal with Beijing for a missile defense system illustrates US influence at this stage.

Turkey has had a double agenda in Syria, as its intention in the proxy war against Syrian President Bashar Assad was to replace Alawite with Sunni Muslim rule in Damascus.

When then-US president Barack Obama failed to follow through in 2013 with a response to the chemical attack in Ghouta, the momentum faltered. Two years later, Russia entered the war on Assad’s side and, after a hiccup with the downing of the SU-24 in November 2015, Erdogan made it up with Putin a month before the attempted coup.

This increased tension with the US, as Turkey detained Pastor Andrew Brunson in an attempt to pressure the US into an exchange with Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen, a resident of Pennsylvania. With the imposition of sanctions, this backfired, resulting in Brunson’s release. Another US citizen – Serkan Gölge, a NASA employee, who had similarly been convicted for aiding a terrorist (i.e. the Gülen) organization – has just been released.

The bone of contention is Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which, like the Chinese system, is incompatible with NATO’s systems. In November, Turkey is expected to get US-produced F-35 fighters – where it also plays a role in their production – but this will be blocked if Ankara commits to the delivery of the Russian system. In addition, Turkey’s economy will be hard hit by the imposition of CAATSA sanctions (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act).

Turkey is again playing a double game in Syria, as it has been allowed by Russia to occupy an area west of the Euphrates and Afrin province. At the same time, it has been entrusted by Russia with de-escalating violence in Idlib province, but has also supplied rebel forces with armored vehicles, rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles to repel a Russian-backed offensive by Assad’s forces.

In December, US President Donald Trump was persuaded by Erdogan to withdraw from northeastern Syria, and now there are plans to create a safe zone in the same area, which Erdogan insists should be under Turkish control.

Trump has also agreed with Erdogan to form a joint study group on the S-400 system, but the US Defense Department has given Turkey a deadline of July 31 to withdraw from the deal. Trump and Erdogan will meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit at the end of June, so it will be interesting to see whether Erdogan can persuade Trump to mitigate this decision.

Originally published at: https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/The-Turkish-elephant-592496