Turkey: Brussels, you’ve got a problem


The failed coup attempt in Turkey marked a turning point not only for Turkish society but also for relations between the country and Brussels.

The European Union portrays itself as a guardian of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but its weak response to the most serious attack against democracy in any candidate country was disappointing.

In the month since the bloody putsch, evidence has mounted suggesting that the coup was planned and executed by followers of Fethullah Gülen, the former imam whose followers have systematically infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s. Religious or secular, conservative or liberal, the vast majority of the Turkish society holds that the Gülenists were behind the coup and that Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, should be extradited to Turkey to face justice.

A group of seventy prosecutors are working around the clock to build their case. They will find out more about the coup plotters as the investigation continues. A number of army officers and generals have already confessed to being members of the Gülenist cult, and admitted to taking orders from superiors in the Gülenist hierarchy.

Embroidered images of Fethullah Gulen Recep Tayyip Erdogan are displayed in a shop in Turkey | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

The failed coup’s aftermath also had major political implications. On that historic night, ordinary citizens put aside their political differences to unite against the putschists and placed their lives at risk to defend democracy. Several thousand innocent people were wounded, and some 240 lost their lives at the hands of terrorists in uniform.

Every political party in the country denounced the coup and voiced their support for democracy. Over the following days, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with main opposition leaders, who then attended the largest rally in the country’s history. They sent a clear message to the world: Turkey is united and stronger than ever.

Unfortunately, Brussels seems to have missed out on the newfound spirit of solidarity. Some of the first statements from EU leaders were ambiguous, leading to anger and even conspiracy theories. Instead of unequivocally condemning the coup and supporting the elected government’s efforts to bring the putschists to justice, Europe chose to attack Turkey’s leaders for holding the would-be junta accountable for their crimes.

Not a single European head of state has visited Turkey since the failed putsch to express solidarity

People from diverse political backgrounds agree that we must take all necessary steps to prevent the Gülenists or any other group from infiltrating the country’s bureaucracy. The removal of known Gülenists from state institutions isn’t very different from the Einigungsvertrag process, in which about half a million East German state employees were sacked or suspended during the German reunification over their links to the old regime, but EU officials haven’t been supportive of the Turkish effort.

Many Turks, including advocates of EU membership, have been deeply disappointed in Brussels — which appears to have forgotten that Europe cannot be safe if Turkey is insecure.

Not a single European head of state has visited Turkey since the failed putsch to express solidarity. With the sole exception of Carl Bildt, who urged Europe to stand up for Turkish democracy, no public figure has even raised the issue.

Some observers even tried to distract attention from European inaction by treating Erdoğan’s visit to St. Petersburg as some kind of message to Europe. But even if that claim was true, what is preventing European heads of state from visiting the country to express their solidarity with the Turkish people, their parliament, their president and their government?

The EU’s reputation as an advocate of democracy, human rights and the rule of law is on the line. By giving Turkey the cold shoulder, Brussels not only alienates a major ally; it also betrays its values and principles.

European heads of state should cooperate and communicate more closely with Turkish officials before making public statements that are not always true

Brussels should reverse this course and show greater sympathy to the brave Turkish people who stood up to tanks and F16s in their defense of democracy and freedom. EU officials need to understand that the actions being taken against the coup plotters are in proportion to the severity of events.

In addition to visiting Turkey to show solidarity with its people and democratically elected officials, European heads of state should cooperate and communicate more closely with Turkish officials before making public statements that are not always true. And they must do their homework and recognize the destruction the Gülenists have caused.

Similarly, the Turkey-EU migration deal, which has been a huge success story, must be preserved, by allowing Turkish citizens to travel visa-free to the Schengen zone.

Turkey has been fighting against two prominent terrorist organizations, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (ISIL). After the Gülenists’ attempt to overthrow the democratically-elected government, it is clear that it is now facing a third one. It is neither realistic nor ethical to expect Turkey to carry on this fight on its own. The country’s European and American allies should come to its aid.

EU membership remains a strategic goal for Turkey, but it takes two to tango.