Turkey and the EU in the post-Trump era

Even though Ankara is acting as though everything is “business as usual,” Ankara may be contemplating Biden’s win with a heavy heart. Will Trump being voted out of office lead to a domino effect that ultimately leads to the end of the “populist era”?

As my father used to say, “everybody has their time” — meaning everyone and everything has its expiration date. As the math of the U.S. election reminds us, Donald Trump’s presidency has its expiration date, too. 

After the Biden team made a leap towards winning the presidency on Saturday, October 7, Ankara’s first move was to call the Kremlin. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that evening, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a phone call with President Vladimir Putin that very night. Those calls were mostly symbolic rather than substantial in their content; they just gave the message that Ankara is “exploring its options” and will continue to cozy up with Moscow, with or without Trump in the White House. Ankara also refrained from congratulating Biden, whereas the main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was ostracized by government figures for doing so.

Even though Ankara is acting as though everything is “business as usual,” Ankara may be contemplating Biden’s win with a heavy heart. 

Will Trump being voted out of office lead to a domino effect that ultimately leads to the end of the “populist era”? 

That’s too soon to tell, as the socioeconomic and political reasons behind the ascendancy of populism in the first place are still intact. 

I always liken the style of populist leaders to that of a quack. Just like medical impostors, populist leaders pretend that they possess quick, magic remedies to all of society’s complex problems, including those regarding international relations. They are like the con artists that tell people with diabetes that they can eat all the candy they like after they take their magic cure. 

In fact, the key structural reason that the European Union and Turkey relations have failed is the lack of such “personalized relations.” This is not to say that such relations are a good thing — on the contrary, the EU is an institution that was created to overcome the ad-hoc conduct of politics and international relations based on personal likes and dislikes. It was created against erratic decision making.

One way or the other, EU countries must arrive at a consensus in order to move on any given issue. And “consensus” is an alien concept in contemporary Turkish politics. More than ever, the “winner” takes all here and everything depends on who you know and the personal access you have. This is all very “anti-EU.”

The Biden presidency may not be transformative; it may not implement revolutionary visions in politics like the Green New Deal. But it might at least be conducive to the “return of institutions” and reaffirm the importance of consensus, norms, rules and regulations, and the rule of law. If the value of such “commodities” rises again, then Turkey must change its ways, too. It may not become a bastion of democracy,  rights and freedoms, but at least, domestic institutions, international formalities (such as formalized alliances, agreements, and institutional relations) will start to matter and will place limits on personalized leadership.

In this way, the EU and its candidacy will start to matter more to Turkey. To reiterate: this will not be because of the policy choices of the Biden presidency directly — it will be due to the emphasis these policy choices place on institutions and institutionalized relations.

With that being said, I think last week’s most important foreign policy development for Turkey was not Biden’s election. In my view, an institutional decision on behalf of the EU was at least as important and vital.  As a reminder, a deal was reached between the EU leaders that funding for member countries may be cut if they have problems regarding the rule of law.  Negotiators for the European Parliament and the Council of EU, which represent the heads of state of individual member countries, were the ones to reach this landmark agreement.

With this new punitive mechanism, a majority of members may decide that an EU country will be denied funding: so, governments like those in Hungary and Poland will face consequences if they go on behaving as they please regarding democratic values, human rights and the independence of the judiciary. 

Cutting the monetary channels of populist rule may turn out to be “real deal” for constraining the power of such governments. That may be the true reversal of the tide for populist governments. 

The EU’s funding cut move towards its own members with populist governments will have consequences for Turkey. First, the perception is that anti-populist forces are gathering momentum. Secondly, it is highly likely that Turkey will face similar funding cuts and other consequences for its own disrespect of the rule of law once the EU sees that these penalties are indeed working against populist leaders.

As mentioned, everybody has their time. In that vein, there will soon be no Angela Merkel to prevent the imposition of penalties on Turkey. In October 2021, Germany will have a new chancellor, and Merkel will leave the political scene for good, as she has affirmed many times — and Merkel’s departure will be far more scarring for Ankara than the demise of Trump.

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey