The EU-Turkey Deal Misunderstands Turkey and Underestimates Europe’s Power

Lloyd Whittaker

EU-Turkey Deal

As migrants landed in Germany and Finland on April 6, Der Spiegel praised Angela Merkel for making an active refugee policy for the first time since her open borders rhetoric. Arguing that the plan sends out ‘the right signal’, it said the deal would send the ‘message that those who are really in need of protection will continue to be helped to find legal ways to get to Europe’.

However correct the signal, the deal misunderstands the EU’s negotiating partner Turkey, which has manipulated the wishes of Merkel and the European Commission to save face. The deal creates a worrying precedent and risks tangling Europe in Turkey’s two-faced approach to foreign policy.

Since its establishment in 1923, Turkey has vociferously pursued the sanctity of the state. This bullish self interest makes for an unpredictable partner in foreign affairs. For example, while originally aligned with the USSR when building the state in the 1930s, it turned to the US only after Soviet desire for unrestricted access through the Dardanelles threatened Turkish aspirations for unfettered control. Despite NATO membership, this same ethic has been directed at allies at various times across history, making for an uneasy partnership.

State strength also extends to the conduct of internal security policy. Turkey’s enforcement of an internal ethnic homogeneity is linked to external threats – eliminating dissent that could be leveraged from the outside. This stems from a history of externally stoked unrest in the Ottoman Empire, culminating in British support of the Arab Revolt in World War I.

This ethnic uniformity is constitutionally enshrined: Article 301 of Turkey’s Anayasa (basic law) prohibits ‘Insulting Turkishness’. Turkey’s shaky human rights record is an indicator of the top-down attempts to enforce this policy that compliments the internal security of the nation state; and has resulted in population transfers, the closure of critical press agencies and continual repression against the Kurdish minority.

Such a focus explains current scattergun foreign and domestic policies. Ankara has used the European crisis to extract concessions from the EU that it hopes will ease economic worries and bring nervous foreign investors into the fold. The acceleration of Schengen free travel to its citizens, six billion in aid, and swifter movement of the long hoped for accession process in return for hosting migrants are all favourable economic drivers. Yet Turkey has simultaneously funded proxies such as Ahrar Ash Sham in Syria to protect its borders, and has renewed its campaign against the Kurds to enforce its stability.

And Erdogan has been unrelenting. Just last week, Angela Merkel allowed an enquiry into ‘slanderous’ anti Erdogan poetry made by Jan Boehmermann under Article 103 of the German penal code. This arcane law was last used by the Shah of Iran in the 1960’s for similar reasons.

Erdogan is now playing on internal European fears and weakness to force concessions on elements of the Copenhagen criteria for joining the EU. The Commission’s past lethargy in continuing the accession process and installing Schengen free travel was due to Turkey’s democratic, economic and human rights shortcomings under this document. After ‘waiting at the doorstep of Europe for fifty years’, Erdogan now sees an opportunity to barge through the doorway.

This all makes it difficult to believe that Turkey will prioritise the correct treatment of returnees. Hosting an ethnic plurality of Syrians and dealing with unrest among the Kurds in the southeast mean that Turkey is overstretched. Poor conditions in refugee camps that are fiercely policed, alongside reports that Syrians are being deported back into Syria seem to confirm this point.

This has the potential to diminish political capital Europe has held in the Middle East, and create a future security dilemma. If deportation reports prove true, then it’s not inconceivable that an organisation that was once seen as willing to stand up for the Palestinians will instead be seen as a conspirator to the suffering of Syrians. And extreme ideologies in the region, both jihadist and secular, have been fed on the premise that Western leaders have insulated brutal and autocratic regimes, complicit in their brutal oppression of Muslim peoples.

Instead of allowing itself to fall deeper into the Turkey trap, Europe should recognise that Erdogan’s authoritarian reflex is a symptom of grave structural internal and external security issues, and realise its strong negotiating position. Ensnared by a middle income trap, dual threats from the PKK and IS and with scant friends in the region, conditions in Turkey resemble those of 1980. While the current situation may not conclude in military coup d’état as it did then, memories of such outcomes may force Ankara to listen to Western voices more intently.


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