Have EU-Turkey Ties Reached Rock Bottom?

  • Middle East Policy

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Views from the Region

Relations between Turkey and the EU have been on a downward trend for some time. Last year’s failed coup and the subsequent purging of tens of thousands of Turkish civil workers and officials, not just guilty military and police personnel, only served to widen the ideological chasm between the two sides. Now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing for a series of constitutional changes that would grant the president substantial — even authoritarian — power in a referendum that requires a vote from members of the Turkish diaspora in Europe. Some EU countries have begun to push back, irritated at nationalist Turkish rallies in European cities. Whether European anger is meant for domestic purposes as a tactical sop to the anti-immigrant right, or due to real concern for Turkey’s future, depends on whom you ask. For now, however, the state of EU-Turkey relations remains dire.

In an op-ed for Asharq Alwasat, Samir Atallah suggested that of the two sides, Europe stands to lose more from an EU-Turkey stand-off, noting that the Europeans had underestimated Erdogan’s willingness to take risks: “As fear strikes the heart of Europe, it is definite that the continent needs Erdogan as an ally, not a rival. The last thing it wants is to infuriate millions of Turks who have become nationals or have taken residence in European states. More so, Turkey remains a key factor to transatlantic partnerships. Europe’s choices were limited: It was either to regulate potential hostility at Turkish gatherings, bar a Turkish minister from entering the Netherlands and prevent Turkey’s foreign minister from landing on its territory or allow for rallies to spiral out of control. There is no doubt that the Dutch made a political mistake, as evidenced by the crisis it led to. The Netherlands’ mistake was in miscalculating the size of the backlash triggered by barring Turkish politicians…. They simply did not realize the extent to which Erdogan will go with the political spat, especially that he was already occupied with fighting the strategic battle for both Turkey’s international position and his leadership.”

According to Tehran Timess Mohammad Hashemi, the real origin of the row is connected to the respective domestic debates that each side is having over the rise of populism in their countries: “On the one hand, by holding rallies in Germany and elsewhere the Turkish authorities wanted to inspire eligible voters outside the country, who are mostly supporting Erdogan’s party AKP party…Analysts believe cancelling poll rallies have given Erdogan a boost by provoking anti-EU sentiments among Turks both inside and outside the country and to mobilize nationalist voters. …On the other hand, there is adequate evidence to suggest that the European countries were also seeking their own short-term political aims by cancelling those rallies. In Europe, there has been rising fear of the growing popularity of radical-right populist politicians that are strongly opposed to Turkey’s allegedly political Islamist leadership and closer ties between Turkey and the EU. That’s why most mainstream parties in these countries do not want to hand the populists an extra argument by strengthening EU-Turkey relations in the face of elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany.”

Not all agree with that assessment, at least not completely. For example, Ariel Bolstein writes in the pages of the Israeli daily Israel Hayom that what is on display is really a “culture clash”: “Instead of a secular and pro-Western republic, Turkey, now a regional power far from extolling liberal values, aspires to return to the days of the Ottoman sultanate …a strong autocracy based on Islam that purports to force its positions on its citizens, neighboring countries and now even distant countries. On the other side of this diplomatic feud is the Netherlands, which has experimented with liberal democracy and extreme multiculturalism, and is only now beginning to understand that in certain precarious situations, neither will be their salvation.…The change is the willingness of the traditional European population to regain sovereignty at home….The current crisis between the Turks and the Europeans will eventually subside, one way or another, but a resolution to the imminent clash between the two cultures is nowhere in sight.”

Many regional observers have written in support of the Turkish government, especially among the Turkish media, which has been loath to criticize the government since the failed coup last year.  Such is the case of Daily Sabah’s Islam Abdel-Rahman, who points out that the question of a Turkish referendum is a domestic one and that therefore the European countries should stay out: “When you hear many of those European politicians and experts mentioning human rights, freedom of expression and even rights of sovereignty to justify such rudeness and hostility, Google will help show the hypocrisy here. While Germany was [preventing] Turkish officials from visiting their diaspora communities, Frau Merkel was visiting Cairo, praising and shaking hands with not just one of the worst Middle East tyrants but also one of its butchers too, throwing the suffering and cries of 90 million Egyptians under the train. … I have a message for both sides of this crisis. To the Europeans, I think it is better to focus on their own affairs. A stronger and successful Turkey will not threaten the EU, while the rise of xenophobic and nationalistic sentiments does. …To the Turks, there is no need to remind the Europeans of democracy, international laws and human rights, which they forgot about when they stood watching young children fleeing wars and drowning in front of Europe’s closed gates. It is better now to focus on making Turkey more open, stable and prosperous. By just doing this, the Turks will send the best reply to that sad craziness unleashed against their country.”

The heightened tension between Turkey and its European neighbors has created a lot of unease in the region. Some, including the Khaleej Times editorial board, have urged both sides to come together and focus on regional stability and aiding Syrian refugees: “It may not have reached a point of no return yet. But with intelligence agencies now getting involved in the spat between Europe and Turkey, the situation looks serious…. [I]t seems Germany is not done with Turkey yet, as its intelligence chief has joined in the controversy over Turkish rallies and last year’s coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Germany and other European countries believe Ankara used excessive force to crush protests. Erdogan says it was necessary to maintain order and blamed a cleric and businessman, Fethullah Gulen, now in exile in the U.S., for instigating the coup. Berlin, last year, led the bailout for Ankara, which some critics called bribery, to keep Syrian migrants from crossing over into Europe, and wants Turkey to play by EU rules. Ankara, meanwhile, has joined the Russian camp, and does not take kindly to being talked down to by European leaders.… Europe and Turkey should pull back from the brink and stop the provocations. The future of their people and those seeking a new life from Syria is at stake.”

Given all this acrimony, it seems amazing that not that long ago, any discussion of Turkish-EU relations was centered on eventual Turkish accession to the Union.  That door seems truly closed now, at least as long as Erdogan and his AK party remain in power.  Hurriyet Daily News’s Semih Idiz points out that the EU has no draw for Erdogan: “German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel says Turkey has never been this far from EU membership… [but] the prospect of EU membership stopped being a ‘carrot’ for Turkey a long time ago. What we are in fact discussing today is not Turkish-EU ties, but Turkey’s ties with Europe. These have deteriorated in an unprecedented manner, with the help of acrimonious language from the Turkish leadership that has more to do with burning bridges than diplomacy. The fact that Ankara has come out against Europe with its populist verbal guns blazing reflects the desperate need by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to get the result it wants from the April 16 referendum to clinch President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s one-man rule. …  The long and the short of the matter is that Turkey’s relationship with Europe will never be the same again under Turkey’s present leadership….As one European diplomat put it cynically, ‘if Europe is not slamming the door on Turkey altogether, it is solely for the sake of practical considerations.’ Such considerations are of no concern to Ankara, though. It has placed itself on a single track with no reverse gear.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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