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Enough is enough – the medal will be returned

Over a decade ago the then foreign minister Abdullah Gül awarded me the “Medal of High Distinction” of the Republic of Turkey. I received the award, consisting of a diploma and a gigantic gold medal, during a festive ceremony at the Turkish embassy in The Hague. The reason I was deemed worthy of the medal was that in the preceding years I had actively tried to inform the Dutch politicians, and the public in general, about Turkey and to combat prejudices.

By Erik-Jan Zürcher

In the years 2002-2004 the attempts of Turkey to become a member of the European Union, which even then were forty years old, had picked up speed. The new Turkish government of the Party of Justice and Development of prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan, was democratising Turkey at breakneck speed. In the first two years of the new regime over three hundred laws were passed, the vast majority of which aimed to dismantle the authoritarian state that was a legacy of the 1980 military coup and that was still dominated by the army. In recognition of this, the EU in October 2003 agreed to start membership negotiations with Turkey as soon as some final requirements had been met. In December 2004, during a summit in The Hague, the decision to go ahead was taken.

My small contribution in those years was to argue (in a report for the Scientific Council for Government Policy WRR among others) that Turkey could indeed be a part of the EU, because it shared a history with Europe (after all the centre of gravity of the Ottoman Empire had lain in southeastern Europe for centuries); and that the fact that 98 percent of the citizens of Turkey were Muslims should not stand in the way of Turkey’s entry, because Islam too was part of European history and because after eighty years secularism had struck deep roots in Turkey, at least as deep as in – for instance – a country like Poland. I advocated Turkey’s entry into the EU because I thought that Europe could effectively defend its interests in the Middle East and the Caucasus region only with Turkey on board.

These arguments are still valid today. What I got completely wrong was my expectation – and prediction – that the accession process would strengthen the democratic forces in Turkey and that it would make the development of the rule of law irrevocable. I ignored warnings from secularist Turkish friends that Erdoğan was only using the EU and the accession process to destroy his internal enemies and gradually to increase the role of Islam in society, seeing them as short-sighted fear mongering. I was wrong, however, and they were right.

Look where we are now after 14 years and more than ten election victories for Tayyip Erdoğan and his party:
- Because he thought it would win him the election, Erdoğan consciously wrecked the peace process with Kurds and reignited the internal war against the PKK.
- Because he wanted new elections when those of June 2015 did not yield the result he looked for, he sabotaged the formation of a coalition government, which could have counteracted polarisation.
- Academics who distanced themselves from the renewed war against the PKK and demanded a resumption of the peace process, are being persecuted and sometimes have been fired by their universities.
- The media have been emasculated . They either function as mouthpiece of the regime or adopt self-censorship.
- Social media are tightly controlled and often shut down.
- Journalists and editors who report on secret arms deliveries of the Turkish secret service to Syrian Jihadists are convicted to five years in prison for divulging state secrets (so the story was true!)
- The constitutional court of the republic is threatened by the president, who openly states he does not respect it.
- A prime minster who advocates a somewhat softer (though by no means liberal) line is brought down by the president.
- Thousands of Turkish citizens are being prosecuted for “defamation of the president.”
- European citizens who speak critically about Erdoğan, like Dutch publicist Ebru Umar, are prosecuted and held in Turkey.
- In the mean time the party uses its power monopoly to make islamic norms and values ever more dominant in the public space – in most places finding a prayer room is now a lot easier than a seller of alcoholic beverages.

All of this has convinced me that the Turkey of Tayyip Erdoğan cannot and should not become a member of the European Union – ever. A country where politics, the legal system, the media, universities and individuals (even if they live in Europe) have become playthings for a de-facto dictator and his clique of sycophants; where the fundamental freedoms and the rule of law have ceased to function, cannot be a European country. Many of these characteristics are valid for Hungary as well – an EU member – but Hungary is small and for the EU as a whole no more than a nuisance. Turkey’s population is eight times as large and – this is crucial - half of that population staunchly supports the policies of Erdoğan and even more: venerates him as the architect and symbol of the “new Turkey.” A Europe in which the successive crises surrounding the Euro, Greece and the Syrian refugees have shown that it is only partially built on shared values as it is, could never tame this Turkey once it is in, it would be destroyed by its accession.

Of course the EU, and the Netherlands, have to deal with Turkey. We are not alone in this world and the part of the world that respects human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, is unfortunately limited and getting smaller. We do business – economically as well as politically – with other countries that are increasingly in the grip of nationalist dictators (China, Russia, Egypt) but the point is that, thanks to Erdoğan, Turkey now fits into that list and not the list of candidate members of the EU.

That is why the medal will now be carefully packed and sent back to the embassy. I have hesitated for a long time, not because I had illusions left about Erdoğan and his ilk, but because such a demonstrative act might damage others besides myself, notably the dozens of MA and Ph.D. students that I have supervised over the years, many of whom have returned to Turkey. My signature is on their diplomas. I feel I have no choice, however. I have to do this precisely because, as professor of Turkish studies, I am seen as an authority on Turkey. I have to do it as a sign of protest against the dictatorial misrule of Erdoğan in Turkey but also in recognition of the fact that I was wrong twelve years ago: Turkey has not come closer to Europe (as it seemed in the now far-off years of 2002-2006, but since 2007 it has moved away. So far away that membership is no longer a realistic option. Our political leaders should say so loud and clear. Enough is enough.

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