Why Turkey and Europe will have to grin and bear each other
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Germany on an official visit. It comes with all the pomp and circumstance reserved for such occasions — military honors, a state banquet at President Steinmeier’s official residence and, of course, talks with the chancellor and the president.
The elaborate protocol could not, however, conceal that not all is well in the bilateral relationship, or for that matter in Turkey’s overall relationship with Western Europe.
The EU is a values-based organization in which democracy, human rights and a free press are part and parcel of how member countries define themselves. Since the coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016 many Turkish opposition figures and journalists have been jailed and the freedom of the press has been severely limited.
European countries were frustrated when their citizens of Turkish or Kurdish descent (both holding Turkish passports) clashed in Europe’s streets. European governments were unhappy when Turkish politicians wanted to take election rallies to the town squares in Europe.
Consequently, Germany and the Netherlands banned several high-ranking Turkish politicians from addressing followers on their soil. Germany’s politicians and public were so troubled by these events that there is now a fundamental debate about whether the country should allow dual citizenship. These issues are particularly pertinent for Germany because it is home to about half of the 6 million Turks who live abroad. Seventy percent of them voted for Erdogan in the last election.
The former head of the Green Party, Cem Ozdemir, who himself is of Turkish descent and a fluent Turkish speaker, was one of the most outspoken politicians condemning both undemocratic behavior by citizens of Turkish origin in Germany and violations against human rights and freedom of the press in Turkey.
Erdogan has his frustrations with Europe too. He is housing 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has been promised €6 billion for sealing off his borders with Europe. Only part of the promised money has been disbursed so far and his country is experiencing an economic crisis of a magnitude not seen since the late 1990s.
Erdogan has been perturbed by NATO allies’ support of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq and Syria. While they have been reliable allies of the West in fighting Daesh, they are considered close to the PKK, which is seen in Turkey as a terrorist group. Supporting Kurdish groups always invokes in the Turkish government fears of the country’s territorial integrity.
In the past, Erdogan, Steinmeier, Merkel, and Macron chose public gatherings to have words. This, then, was the backdrop against which Erdogan landed in Berlin on Friday. He had with him a list of Turkish citizens he wanted extradited to Turkey because he considered them spies. The former editor in chief of the left-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar, was the most prominent among these names. He demanded that the PKK be outlawed and the movement of Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan holds responsible for the 2016 coup, declared a terrorist organization.
Chancellor Merkel politely pointed out that the PKK was already designated a terrorist organization in Germany and that she needed more information to do anything about Gulen’s movement.
Turkey and Europe have a lot of common interests, whether of an economic or a geopolitical nature. It is, therefore, pivotal that they find a modus operandi.
She also criticized Turkey for detaining German journalists (of Turkish origin) in jail and bemoaned human rights violations and the lack of freedoms for the press.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was considerably less diplomatic during his conversation. The group picture of Erdogan, Steinmeier and their wives before the state dinner clearly showed the strain in the relationship.
Be this as it may, Turkey and Europe need one another and need to find a way of working together. They are neighbors. Turkey also constitutes the easternmost flank of NATO and borders Syria and Iraq. As mentioned before, Turkey houses 3.5 million Syrian refugees. A decision by Erdogan to open his borders to Europe for these refugees would cause chaos in the EU. Accommodating refugees and migrants has become a thorny issue with so many governments, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, etc. moving to the right. If last month’s elections in Sweden has proved one thing, it is that far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats are becoming ever more empowered. The AfD in Germany, Front National in France and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands are also poised to make gains in future elections.
There is also Syria, which seems to be ending its seven-year civil war. The last remaining opposition stronghold is in Idlib. While neither the EU nor Turkey are supporters of the Assad regime, no one wants to see yet another humanitarian disaster when the regime forces march in.
To Erdogan’s credit, he did succeed in persuading Vladimir Putin to create a buffer zone in Idlib. This is only a temporary respite, but it moved the agenda forward so that Merkel could propose a Syria summit between Putin, Erdogan, Macron and herself in the weeks to come. Erdogan desperately needs a solution for Idlib.
The Turkish lira has lost more than 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year alone and the government’s midterm plan foresees inflation at 20.8 percent for 2018, which is a conservative forecast. It would be hard for Turkey to accommodate more refugees under the current economic circumstances.
The economy is another point of mutual concern between the Europeans and the Turks. The EU is Turkey’s largest export market. Turkey’s large current account deficit is in dire need of foreign currencies that these exports bring.
In turn, Europe has no interest in a destitute neighbor to the East. Over the next 15 months, private companies need to repay between 120 and 180 billion in euro-denominated loans. Failure to do so will invariably result in bankruptcies in the real economy and have ripple effects in the banking sector. It is in Europe’s interest to find ways to soften the blow. Spain’s BBVA bank, France’s BNP Paribas and Italy’s Unicredit are the main creditors. A free fall of the Turkish economy could, in particular, exacerbate the dicey economic situation in Italy.
Turkey and Europe currently do not share the same civic values, which makes it unrealistic for Turkey to join the EU in the next decade or so.
However, they have a lot of common interests, whether of an economic or a geopolitical nature. It is, therefore, pivotal that they find a modus operandi. Both sides may need to grit their teeth. They may dislike the prospect of dealing with neighbors whose attitudes they find suboptimal, but deal with them they must. It is called “realpolitik.”
Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources