Turkey’s relations with Europe sink

Sunday 19/03/2017

The Netherlands has followed Germany in banning rallies for Turkey’s referendum on a new constitution. Turkish ministers, notably Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, were effectively barred from addressing a meeting in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, ironi­cally at the behest of the mayor who is a Muslim of Moroccan origin.

The Turkish government fears it might lose what has turned into a tight race on whether to introduce a presidential system of govern­ment.

“The sun rises in the east — no good will come from the West,” Yildirim said. That suggests Turkey is no longer interested in joining the European Union.

The crisis reverberated across Europe as Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen cancelled a meeting with his Turkish counter­part. Political rallies in the run-up to the Turkish referendum on April 16th have been cancelled in Austria, Switzerland and Sweden. Only France broke ranks with its European partners, allowing Yildirim to have a meeting in Strasbourg. However, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen quickly condemned Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted, as he is wont to do, by insulting his peers in Europe, accusing the Germans and the Dutch of behaving like Nazis. He called the Netherlands a “banana republic” and said it “would pay for the price of its actions”.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the comments as “completely unacceptable”. He took a tough stance on immigra­tion in the run-up to elections March 6th to fend off a charge from Dutch anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders, who called for Turks loyal to Erdogan to be expelled from the Netherlands.

Accusing the Dutch and German governments of anti-democratic practices sits uncomfortably with a man who is increasingly turning away from democratic principles and intent on establishing in Turkey an Islamic-minded autocracy. Is it not hypocritical for Erdogan to demand greater freedom for his surrogates overseas while restricting the same freedoms for his opponents in Turkey?

He is repeating the tactics he used in the 2015 elections in which he identified enemies of the country — then the Kurds, now Europe — and asked voters to vote “yes”, to create a strong executive so it can deal with these enemies of the country.

If successful, next month’s referendum will give Erdogan increased powers over parlia­ment, the judiciary and the civil bureaucracy. The offices of head of government and state will be merged and the president could stay in power until 2029. Erdogan is increasingly compared to Sultan Abdulhamid II, a pious, paranoid and absolutist ruler who was overthrown in a coup in 1909.

The Dutch government had understandable fears that the presence of Turkish ministers would provoke public unrest, especially in the days before polling as the campaign for the general elections has been dominated by the themes of immigration and integration.

German authorities can only take note of the increased hostility among Turks in Ger­many. Threats against shops that belong to Turks who refuse to back Erdogan are common as are those proffered in mosques. Turkey’s liberal, Kurdish and Alevi minorities are suffering under the hardening rule of Erdogan and the German and Dutch authorities have no desire to see domestic Turkish feuds imported into their respective countries.

Nearly 1.5 million Turks in Germany are eligible to vote in the April 16th referendum on Erdog­an’s constitutional reforms as are many Turks in the Netherlands. The two expat communities are vital blocs in a tight campaign.

The historic entangling of internal politics and foreign affairs is, however, nothing new. It is simply taking on unforeseen dimensions. For centuries, Turkey was locked in a wider interna­tional order, first as an empire with vast land holdings in Europe and then as an ally of the West in the Cold War, later as a contender for EU membership.

The effective shelving of Turkey’s bid for membership of the European Union by French president Nicolas Sarkozy was endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Turkey remains a candidate country but with no realistic chance of joining, which explains why Western Europe has lost much of its leverage on Turkey.

Relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart recovered from a low last summer after the Russian leader offered Erdogan immediate and unequivocal support after an attempted coup by the followers of self-exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen. The West was left scrambling for a response. Although it remains a member of NATO, Turkey is at odds with the West and Erdogan loves to manufacture crises, which play well to a very national­istic electorate.

Just more than a century ago, the Ottoman empire had its first experience with constitutional democracy just as its very existence was threatened by the European powers, stripping it of its territories from Algeria after 1830 to Egypt in the 1880s and its internal balance by Western-style liberals, turbaned reactionaries and minorities, notably the Greeks and the Armenians who militated for rights and autonomy — with European support. Plus ça change…