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Photographer: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Europe Shouldn't Ignore Turkey's Contempt for Democracy

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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Speaking uncomfortable truths to friends is never easy. It's even harder when you need a favor.

On Friday, Turkey's largest newspaper, Zaman, printed a defiant final headline before its ownership changed. It read: "The Constitution Is Suspended." Two days later, when the water cannons and tear gas had cleared after a court-ordered takeover of the paper, the tone had changed. The front page carried a milquetoast portrayal of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a ceremony marking the construction of a new bridge over the Bosporus.

The West desperately needs bridge-builders in Turkey, a NATO ally whose democratic institutions were at one time seen as a model for a region beset by violence and sectarianism. Yet Friday's takeover of Zaman makes it hard for Turkey's friends in the West to ignore the government's disregard for democratic freedoms.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

That's a big problem because the West can't afford to push Turkey away, even for good reasons. If Europe is to meet a new timetable to restore border-free travel among European Union nations by the end of the year, it will need Turkey's help dealing with the flood of migrants and refugees from Syria and elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is paying a bitter price in public opinion for insisting for so long that Germany's doors remain open to migrants. She, too, needs Turkey for a deal that reassures German voters that she hasn't lost control.

With 2.5 million migrants to feed, Turkey wants financial aid and other inducements. The EU is well aware that the large majority of the 1 million migrants that entered last year passed through Turkey. Ankara could unleash a tidal wave of asylum-seekers if it chose, a prospect that gives EU leaders heart failure.

Given the EU's and Turkey's mutual interest in a deal over migrants, the conflict in Syria and Russian aggressiveness, there are plenty of reasons why European officials might be tempted to gloss over Turkey's ugly politics. There was a pro-forma mention of the Zaman takeover during a summit on Monday aimed at resolving the migrant crisis, but the heat was kept low. The EU has an obligation to make more of a fuss. 

It can start with press freedom. In its 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 149 out of 180 countries. More than 30 journalists, mainly Kurds, are reportedly behind bars. Twitter reported receiving 1,761 requests from Turkish authorities directing Twitter to remove content in the second half of 2015 (something my colleague Marc Champion brought to my attention with an earlier set of figures). Twitter filed legal objections with Turkish courts for 66 percent of the Turkish orders received, focusing largely on demands to remove content that was critical of public figures or which alleged corruption. Those objections prevailed in only 6 percent of cases.

Increasingly, Turkey's courts have gone after those whom Erdogan has criticized for seeking to undermine his rule. In October 2015, an Ankara court appointed trustees to take over the Koza-Ipek industrial group, which owned the Bugun and Millet newspapers as well as two prominent television stations. By last month all four of Koza-Ipek's media companies had been closed.

The same court that ordered the storming of Zaman refused the release of two journalists arrested in December. The two were finally freed from pretrial arrest on Feb. 26, but only after Turkey's constitutional court ruled that the journalists' writings did not amount to "military espionage" or "assisting a terrorist organization." Erdogan has been scathing about the verdict.

The latest attacks have not been restricted to media outlets. Just hours before the Zaman shut-down, a court ordered the detention of three shareholders of the Boydak industrial group, also accused of providing financial resources to an alleged terrorist organization. Both the Zaman media group and the Boydak group are viewed by Erdogan as linked to the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally whom Erdogan accuses setting up a "parallel state" bent on his overthrow.

After January's terrorist attack on Istanbul, Erdogan told his people that they must choose between government and terrorists. Tarring political enemies with the terrorist label is a page straight from the playbook of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Europe's arm's-length treatment of Turkey has left many Turks rightly cynical about what partnership can bring. Progress toward Turkish integration with Europe have been stalled for a decade, and Turkey has requested a resumption of momentum as part of a deal over migrants. Europe has much to offer Turkey, but the relationship is too important and delicate to be defined by crisis-induced bartering.

The alternative is higher risk, higher reward. It should start with a genuine offer to restart stalled EU integration talks with a frank discussion and public evaluation of the obstacles that Turkey's suppression of democratic freedoms place in the way. Erdogan, as prickly as Putin when criticized, will not like that, and some Europeans won't either. Europe needs to sell the benefit of closer ties, including accelerated visa waivers, straight to Turks themselves; hope can be a powerful catalyst for change.  I suspect the 4 million Turks living in Western Europe would also welcome that message. 

Europe should speak up for its values for its own sake as much as for Turkey's. At a time when democratic institutions have been undermined in Europe's own eastern flank, silence would signal a dangerous kind of consent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net