How Not to Lose Turkey

Turkey may look good in blue.

Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday's arrest of two dozen policemen and journalists in Turkey, including the editor of the country's most popular newspaper and a producer of television dramas, was just the latest evidence that the country's democratic institutions are being eviscerated.

Indeed, as with Russia, it no longer makes sense to speak of Turkey as a democracy without first qualifying the term. Where Russia has a "managed" democracy, Turkey's is, at best, majoritarian. The 1,150-room palace that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just built for himself in Ankara is an apt symbol for the scale of his presidential ambitions, which include remaking Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular republic into a religious conservative one.

Judging from their statement after Sunday's raids, European Union leaders seem now to want to force Erdogan to choose: Either respect democratic institutions or be frozen out of consideration to join the European Union. Satisfying as it may be to put their foot down, though, this is not a strategy that will foster a stable, democratic neighbor for Europe. Instead, the EU should use Turkey's continued desire for membership to help strengthen its institutions.

It's true that arresting journalists is "incompatible with freedom of media," as the EU leaders said Sunday, but the situation is more complicated than that.

To begin with, the journalists arrested Sunday work for media outlets tied to Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader who from 2007 to 2012 used his followers to prosecute members of the Turkish military on Erdogan's behalf. Last year, Gulen turned against Erdogan, at which point his followers published and pressed corruption charges against the then-prime minister's closest allies and family.

It's hard to hold up journalists and policemen who colluded in jailing people on fabricated evidence as champions of press freedom or the rule of law, even if that doesn't excuse their arrest as terrorists.

What's more, the EU lacks moral authority to threaten a principled end to Turkey's membership talks: The leaders of Cyprus and France led the way in freezing the talks soon after they began in 2005, mostly for reasons of venal domestic politics. If the EU were to now end the talks in a blaze of self-righteous indignation, most Turks would see the decision as further evidence of Christian Europe's prejudice against a large, predominantly Muslim nation.

In any case, as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, Turkey is simply too important to be frozen out. Consider its position straddling Europe and the Middle East; its religion at a time when NATO has been engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; and its half a million active-duty troops. True, Turkey has been an awkward partner in dealing with Islamic State, but its perceived interests will eventually have to be taken into account.

Rather than threaten to end membership talks with Turkey, therefore, EU leaders should demonstrate some patience. Only Turks can decide how they want to live. The best the EU can do is to go on pressing Erdogan in public over media freedoms and the rule of law while relying on close trade and investment ties to keep the country bound to Europe.

The smarter way for the EU to handle membership talks now would be to unfreeze them on key areas, including on the judiciary and fundamental rights, as well as on border controls and cooperation in fighting organized crime, terrorism and drug smuggling. Turkey today would fail miserably to meet EU standards in many of these areas, but if they were back on the table, it would be up to Erdogan to explain to his people why.

(Corrects the spelling of Fethullah Gulen's first name in the fifth paragraph.)

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.