by Marc Champion
Politicians in Turkey and the European Union stoking tensions for short-term electoral gain may have done lasting damage to vital economic and security ties.
While relations between the EU and Turkey have been rocky for years, the furor of recent days — with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan freely hurling the Nazi epithet at his western antagonists — marks a rift that could prove irreparable. Turkey has been negotiating EU membership since 2005, but progress has come close to a halt.
“Even without anyone saying it, Turkey’s EU membership talks will go into an irreversible coma now,” said Marc Pierini, who served as the EU’s ambassador to Turkey from 2006-2011 and is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank. “That will suit everybody, except Turkey’s democrats.”
Simmering tensions between the NATO allies boiled over when bitter campaigns were added to the mix last weekend. Dutch officials prevented Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from landing his plane to seek support among expatriates, expelled another cabinet minister from the country and quelled the ensuing protests by Dutch Turks. That prompted Erdogan’s denunciations.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte faced voters Wednesday, in which the anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders was his biggest challenger. Rutte took a tough line with Turkey and last-minute opinion polls suggest that was what voters wanted to see.
For his part, Erdogan is trying to rally support for constitutional changes to be voted on April 16. On Monday, a report by the Council of Europe’s legal watchdog, the Venice Commission, attacked the changes as anti-democratic, warning that the amendments would create a presidential system with no meaningful separation of powers and risk “authoritarian rule.”
Erdogan’s denunciations of the Netherlands, Germany and the EU as a whole as fascist has drowned those criticisms and rallied Turkish nationalists behind him. Even the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, has backed him. On Wednesday,hackers hijacked the Twitter accounts of major European news organizations and European Parliament legislators, posting swastikas and messages in support of Erdogan.
The harshness of Erdogan’s rhetoric will make any pretense at restoring the kind of EU-Turkish partnership that existed a decade ago difficult, if not impossible. At the same time, the rise of anti-Muslim populists such as Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen is pushing even mainstream European parties to adopt some of their policies, turning any outreach to predominantly Muslim Turkey into a political liability.
Turkish officials appear to agree that a growing divide over values now separates the EU and Turkey.
It “goes beyond a mere diplomatic spat and is symptomatic of a deeper problem,” wrote Ibrahim Kalin, senior adviser and spokesman for Erdogan, in a Turkish newspaper column published March 14. “European politicians are giving in to the type of racist and anti-Muslim populism that undermines the core values of democracy, civility, multiculturalism and human rights.”
Pierini sees a wider clash between two populisms — one anti-Muslim in Europe, and the other fighting for the Islamization of the secular Turkish Republic — that risks an uncontrolled downward spiral. Europe’s leaders, he said, “are losing sight of the fundamentals, that you have a counter-revolution going on in Turkey,” where Erdogan is trying to reverse the westward course on which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk set the country in 1923.
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Hanging in the balance is a deal struck a year ago, under which Turkey agreed to cooperate in stemming the flow of refugees from Syria. In exchange, the EU provided more than $3 billion in economic aid and pledges both to “re-energize” Turkey’s stalled membership talks and deliver visa-free travel for Turks entering the 26-nation Schengen area, both of which are increasingly politically toxic for EU leaders.
On Monday, Turkish EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik said Turkey might rethink the deal, while Erdogan has in the past threatened to bus refugees to the Bulgarian and Greek borders. Deputy Prime Minister Nurman Kurtulmus also this week threatened the Netherlands with the possibility of economic sanctions in the future.
“The key question is whether we can sever political ties without damaging the economic ones, and I don’t think we can,” said Atilla Yesilada, Istanbul-based adviser to GlobalSource Partners, an economic consultancy.
In 2016, 60 percent of the goods Turkey exported to the rest of the world went to the EU. Europe also provides at least two-thirds of foreign direct investment in Turkey as well as many of its tourists. Growth was negative in the last reported quarter, and on Wednesday, the government published the worst budget deficit and unemployment figures since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
“I’m not saying Erdogan can’t do it, but I think it’s a bluff,” said Yesilada. “We need to sell our textiles and other goods to Europe, because we aren’t a resource economy. Turkey just isn’t Russia.”