Will the EU halt membership talks with Turkey? And would Turks care?

Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan was once the man who would guide Turkey into the EU. Now he's dismissing talks as irrelevant.

Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Press Service/AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (c.) listens as he attends an annual economy and trade meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, Wednesday.

Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that an upcoming vote by the European Parliament on whether to suspend talks over Turkish membership “has no value in our eyes” and accused the European Union of withholding “concrete support" from Turkey’s bid to suppress groups it views as terrorists.

"We have made clear time and time again that we take care of European values more than many European Union countries, but we could not see concrete support from Western friends ... None of the promises were kept," he said at an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference in Istanbul, according to Reuters. He went on to call on countries in the OIC to stand up to Western countries where Muslims were subject to “double standards, prejudice, alienation,” the Associated Press reports.

The comments come as Turkey-EU relations reach a relative low point. Mr. Erdoğan’s apparent indifference to EU membership has been accompanied by solicitous gestures toward EU rivals – he has suggested that Turkey could join the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative – as a decade’s worth of talks with the EU, a bloc his country once seemed poised to join, have fizzled into animus.

In 2004, on the eve of an EU report recommending talks with Turkey over potential membership, The Christian Science Monitor wrote that leaders in the bloc could give a “historic ‘yes’” to the idea that same year: 

Historic not just because of the buildup to this moment, but because it would be an opportunity to prove that Christian and Muslim civilizations can share common democratic values in an open-market framework. This is especially important in the post-9/11 era, when terrorist jihadists are trying to convince Muslims that neither coexistence nor cooperation with the West and its values is possible or desirable.

Britain, of all countries, had taken the lead in convincing skeptics like Austria, where popular opinion was opposed to Turkish membership for reasons that parallel more recent upheavals.

"Austria, a country of 8.2 million, is home to 250,000 Turks. Fears have grown of a new influx if Turkey joins the EU, aggravating unemployment in the Alpine country,” Mark Rice-Oxley wrote for the Monitor in 2005. "Popular opinion in swaths of continental Europe has turned heavily against Turkish accession for economic and cultural reasons; some politicians pander to such a viewpoint to win votes."

Erdoğan, too, was once hailed as the man who would lead Turkey into Europe, pushing through reforms needed to align the country’s laws with those of the bloc, like an abolition of the death penalty, a crackdown on the use of torture and the securing of more rights for the Kurdish minority.

But critics of the Turkish president accuse him of autocratic tendencies as intra-EU tensions grew and Turkey’s bid lost momentum – tendencies that have turned full-blown after a failed coup this past July, which provoked a massive purge of police and civil services seen as havens for an influential opponent. And US and EU cooperation with Kurdish groups in their fight against the so-called Islamic State group has inflamed Erdoğan, who accuses Europe of harboring members of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group closely aligned with the coalition’s allies.

On Wednesday, Erdoğan said that the presence of PKK-sympathetic protestors near an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels demonstrated the EU’s “two-faced” nature, AP reports. 

"On one hand you declare the PKK a terrorist organization, on the other you have terrorists roaming freely in the streets of Brussels. What kind of sincerity is this?" he said.

This report contains materials from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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