Turkish security forces launched a crackdown Sunday against supporters of cleric Fethullah Gulen, an erstwhile rival of President Recep Erdogan turned foe. Two dozen journalists, producers and police officers believed to have close ties with the self-exiled opposition leader, accused of mounting a parallel state within Turkey, were arrested.
The dragnet comes nearly one year after an embarrassing corruption scandal exploded in Ankara, with the president and then premier implicated alongside his closest allies. (Gulen is widely believed to have orchestrated the scandal via his in-country network, Hizmet.) Erdogan’s response at the time was to clean house, firing police officers believed to be loyal to Gulen. Now, he is fighting back once again – notably targeting the editor-in-chief of one of Turkey’s largest newspapers, Zaman, and the chairman of Samanyolu TV.
The move has elicited a round of indignation in Brussels, notably from E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, who has only been in office for a few months. Mogherini released a joint statement with E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn noting that the recent raids “are incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy.” Indeed, Turkey has been lagging on this front, ranking 154 of 180 in the most recent press freedom report by Reporters without Borders.
Of worry here is the inefficacy of a recent trip to Ankara made by Mogherini and Hahn, meant to cultivate relations with the longtime E.U. aspirant, while stressing the need for further reforms. (Hahn noted during last week’s visit, “Further reforms are needed to provide solid ground for progress. To achieve this, we need to have an even closer and deeper relationship with Turkey.”) That Ankara nonetheless proceeded with a wide scale and high-profile crackdown indicates that while Turkey may have once been actively seeking European integration, that goal has largely been placed on the back burner as Erdogan pursues closer ties with the East and consolidates power at home. In fact, E.U. officials report that Turkey cooperation with Brussels has reached its lowest point yet, dropping from 80% to 30% in the last ten years.
Little wonder. It’s no secret that the bloated European Union has been struggling to maintain its former level of influence both within and outside the bloc, handicapped by an overly ambitious expansionary policy and the disastrous financial meltdown in 2008. Yet, while the E.U. remains anxious about the implications of Turkey’s controversial accession bid, it can ill afford to alienate a critical political and economic partner in a conflict-torn region. Judging from Erdogan’s decision to pursue a personal vendetta this week, days after a highest-ranking E.U. visit, Brussels may have missed its chance.