Relations between Europe and Turkey are tense. In the past weeks, Turkey has called the Netherlands “the capital of fascism” and accused Germany of “fascist actions” reminiscent of the Nazi period, after Germany cancelled political rallies aimed at gathering support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his referendum on presidential powers next month. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder talked with Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who focused on Turkey and the Middle East, about the relationship. Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, says the fraught relationship between Turkey and Europe actually goes back many years.
TCB: Do the latest political rifts in Turkey’s relations with major European countries – notably, Germany and the Netherlands – over the upcoming Turkish referendum on presidential powers threaten the Turkey-Europe relationship as a whole? How? That is, what are the implications for the Turkey-Europe relationship of Erdogan holding this referendum?
Michael Rubin: The funny thing about the European-Turkish relationship is that both sides have been faking it for some time. Sure, the diplomats go through the motions about Turkey’s EU accession, and Turkish leaders pay lip service to their European ambitions, but the dream among liberal Turks and Europeans about tying the two together has been on life support for more than a decade, poisoned largely by Erdogan’s behavior.
Consider some of the things that raised European eyebrows but didn’t necessarily make headlines. In May 2006, Erdogan’s chief negotiator for accession talks revised a negotiating paper to strip any reference to Turkey’s educational system as secular. Then there was the time Erdogan condemned a European Court of Human Rights decision upholding a headscarf ban at Turkish universities because the European court issued its decision “without consulting Islamic scholars.” Erdogan’s anti-NATO shenanigans have left a deep impression as well, as has the bluster of some of his close aides. Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s former EU minister, for example, threatened to use the Turkish navy against NATO partners because of a dispute about gas drilling in Cypriot waters, while Erdogan’s ambassador to Chad sided with al Qaeda over the 2012 French intervention in Mali.
Expect Turkey’s relations with Europe to get worse if Erdogan gets his way on the referendum. As he has consolidated power, Erdogan has dispensed with even the illusion of compromise and liberalism. The pragmatic goals he set when he was first elected – fixing the economy, basic tax reform, constituent services, etc. – have gone out the window and he now seeks to reconstruct Turkey in his image. The key is not the referendum but the year 2023, Turkey’s 100th anniversary, and if Europe is a useful foil to flail as he rallies his supporters, why stop?
TCB: What – if any – other factors are playing into the deteriorating Turkey-Europe relationship, beyond Erdogan and his tightening grip on power?
MR: There’s a pattern with every EU aspirant that support for actually joining declines after negotiations begin. That’s been true with Turkey, on steroids, driven both by the demands for real reforms that rub some Turks the wrong way and the sense that Brussels has applied a double standard to Turkey. To be fair, there has been something there, and in some European countries, casual racism against Turks and Muslims has been a factor. That said, if Erdogan truly wanted to join Europe rather than simply use the accession process to loosen the military’s grip to allow him to consolidate greater power, Turkey would already have acceded.
Beyond this, there is widespread frustration with Turkey over refugees. On one hand, Erdogan can say that Turkey is doing more than many other countries to take care of Syrian refugees but, on the other, Europeans feel that Erdogan has been using refugees – turning on and off the spigot of refugee flow – in order to pressure Europe for other reasons.
Lastly, there has been the clerical spy scandal in the Netherlands and elsewhere that presaged the current crisis: Turkish government-sponsored imams preaching in European mosques were informing on diaspora Turks, reporting back on those with suspected links to exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, opposition political activists, or Kurdish groups.
TCB: Could these factors threaten Turkey-Europe deals that are important to security in the region, such as the EU-Turkey migration deal?
MR: That’s pretty much already dead. Erdogan’s team has sought to blackmail Europe with refugees. In effect, Erdogan and his ministers have said, “Do what we want, or we will send 15,000 refugees per month into Europe.” Nor is there any way, after both Erdogan’s antics and Turkey’s failure to prevent Islamic State terror attacks on its own territory, that Europe is going to allow visa-free travel for Turks, which was what Turkey demanded out of the bargain. At the very least, Erdogan is going to have to show that he and his intelligence services can successfully shut down ISIS cells, something that will be extremely hard to do since the post-coup attempt purge has eviscerated Turkey’s counter-terror capabilities.
TCB: What other security implications does the deteriorating relationship have?
MR: Okay, putting refugees and the Islamic State aside, there’s also criminal activity – human and drug smuggling, for example – that requires cooperation to defeat, cooperation that’s no longer there. And, finally, NATO. The problem with Turkey and NATO is two-fold: First, NATO is a consensus-driven organization, and so a single naysayer can paralyze the organization; and, second, there is no formal mechanism to kick out a member. In a sense, Erdogan has NATO by the balls and Europeans know that if they do too much to rub Erdogan the wrong way, he’ll squeeze.
TCB: Europe faces a series of elections this year. If the political landscape in Europe changes – and populist candidates like France’s Marine Le Pen get elected or gain ground in parliaments – could this change relations with Turkey?
MR: Erdogan should be seen in the same light as Le Pen and the other European (and American) populists. In effect, he was the trend-setter. But, if European nationalists rise, I would expect two outcomes. Rhetorical battles will get worse. Nationalists across countries might share many values and priorities, but viewing diplomacy and trade as zero sum games necessarily pits countries against each other. But there could be a silver-lining: Erdogan loves exploiting the European fear of aggrievement. He’ll pretend to be insulted by a European slight, and then he’ll cash in the concessions that follow as European diplomats try to ameliorate him. But if populists reign supreme, Erdogan’s bluster will be met with bluster, and Erdogan will discover that his strategy no longer pays off. In effect, a new breed of nationalist leaders might stop enabling or rewarding Erdogan’s antics.
TCB: Any other thoughts on current Turkey-Europe dynamics and how the relationship could develop in the coming months/years?
MR: The key thing to watch in Turkey is the economy. The debt-to-GDP ratio is still good, but personal debt has skyrocketed, which means that people are taking loans to pay the interest but not principle on credit cards and bank debt. Throw into this mix the government pursuing political vendettas against businesses, poor currency policy, and Turkey’s recent descent into junk bond status according to rating agencies, and it’s a toxic mix. The question then becomes how will Turks respond as their buying power declines, and what will Erdogan do to distract them?
Source: The Cipher Brief