The predictive acumen of political scientists is pretty weak, but I daresay that Brexit is a critical threshold for world history, and Turkish politicians sorely misread it.
The EU will face increasing strains after the departure of the UK, which will reflect on Turkey’s relations with it through economic, political and social dimensions. While Ankara considers the EU a spent force, seeking her future and fortune in the Muslim world and the Shanghai Five, neither better democracy nor more prosperity is likely to occur without closer integration with the EU.
The Brexit vote was against globalisation, immigration and, strangely enough, against a very remote event, namely Turkish accession to the EU.
To the extent Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nowadays associates herself with the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world, Brexit can be said to be a vote against Islam as well.
Potent mix of forces
Inasmuch as France and Germany will try to drive the cost of Brexit high to teach a lesson to other potential “rebels” who may wish to abandon the Union, this effort is very likely to backfire.
Nowadays refugees to Europe are mostly poor, devout Muslims who have a very difficult time assimilating into the Christian culture and thus are likely to be rejected and feared by the host society.
The Turkish leadership greeted Brexit and the predictions of further departures from EU with a degree of thinly veiled glee, treating it as 'just deserts' for the EU's collective callousness in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis...
Add to this factor the misperception equating political Islam to radical Islam and the never-ending economic plight of the EU excluding Germany, and one gets a potent mix of forces which will compel the EU leadership either to restrain Muslim immigration, or to face the bitter possibility of more secession. How do the EU’s woes reflect upon Turkey?
The Turkish leadership greeted Brexit and the predictions of further departures from the EU with a degree of thinly veiled glee, treating it as “just deserts” for the EU’s collective callousness in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis, rising Islamophobia and the confirmation of AKP’s longstanding hypothesis that European culture is morally and intellectually bankrupt.
Erdogan went as far as suggesting a Turkish referendum to ask whether EU accession talks ought to continue, while Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that it was high time for the EU to “adopt Anatolian values”.
Huge costs for Turkey
While there might be elements of truth in Ankara’s views, strategically speaking, the fragmentation of the EU carries huge costs for Turkey, which can only be ameliorated by closer integration.
The first and easiest cost to identify is the death of the Syrian refugee deal. The EU won’t be able to accept the Syrian refugees which had been promised to Turkey, or grant the visa waiver so precious to Turks. Turkey is essentially stuck with 2.5 million poor Syrian refugees, and potentially another half million to arrive if Assad captures Aleppo and the Idlib Province.
The visa waiver is not a luxury for well-heeled Turkish citizens to visit Paris and Rome on shopping trips. It would have allowed small businesses to access EU markets without bureaucratic hassles to market their wares and services easily.
Moreover, an EU sucked up into its own vortex of fear and uncertainly would export less from Turkey, send fewer tourists and invest less.
But the political costs are more important. First, it is accepted wisdom in emerging markets that countries need structural reforms to accelerate their sagging growth rates.
Turkey has a home-made structural reform agenda, which doesn’t pass muster because it calls for more state intervention in the economy, more subsidies and strange ideas such as picking future winners in non-existent industries.
On the other hand, the EU’s acquis is an easy-to-adopt reform matrix which can significantly enhance Turkey’s productivity performance. There is a bigger problem in Turkey. The country can neither modernise nor build institutions of democracy.
In fact, it fair to say that since the Gezi Park protests in 2012, Turkey slipped back in all internationally recognised indicators of governance and democracy, from press freedom to government transparency. Integration with the Muslim world or the Shanghai Five would not help Turkey to solve its democracy and institutional deficit problem.
Difficult to govern
Without trust in government, judiciary and institutions, it is unlikely that Turkey will ever overcome the middle income trap, or soothe the societal tensions between Kurds and Turks, Sunnis and Alevites or conservative Muslims and secular modernists. Without the EU anchor, Turkey would become increasingly difficult to govern.
Ankara is right to complain that Islamophobia is on ascent, but thanks to AKP's policies Judeo-Christiano-phobia is also on the rise in Turkey.
The last problem is actually a missed opportunity. The likes of al-Qaeda and ISIL (also known as ISIS) on the Muslim side and Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen on the Christian side are actively stoking a clash of civilisations between the two religions, which could mutate into the 21st-century version of the Cold War.
Trump’s policy platform of banning Muslim immigration is not taken seriously, but it is the first time ever that a presidential candidate in the “free world” has advocated official religious discrimination and people voted for him.
Ankara is right to complain that Islamophobia is on the ascent, but thanks to AKP’s policies Judeo-Christiano-phobia is also on the rise in Turkey.
Most Turks, whether they vote for AKP or not, give some credence to a conspiracy theory that an uber-mind orchestrated by Jews, Americans and Germans is to blame for all Turkey’s problems from ISIL terror to Gezi Park protests, simply because Turks are Muslim. This is the missed opportunity.
Turkey is actually a great laboratory to reject the hypothesis that moderate Islam, democracy and efficient free-market capitalism can’t co-exist. But, to do so, Ankara needs to embrace European values of democracy, institutions and the reform matrix, otherwise the internal dynamics in society and the region will gradually drag it down to the level of other Middle Eastern societies.
Erdogan displayed great pragmatism and patriotism by facilitating reconciliation with Israel and Russia, even though – on a personal level – both attempts must have felt like defeats to him. It remains to be seen whether he can set aside his personal misgivings about the EU and steer Turkey back to faster accession. Perhaps his role in history will be determined by that choice, along with Turkey’s fate.
Atilla Yesilada is an Istanbul-based partner of independent think-tank GlobalSource Partners.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.