18 April 2017

How Erdogan’s power grab has divided the West

By Mark Almond

The knife-edge result of Turkey’s constitutional referendum on Sunday revealed that the country is deeply polarised. But the sharply differing reactions to it from Berlin and Brussels on the one hand, and Washington on the other, revealed the fault lines over Turkey that exist across the West too.

As well as being sharply critical of the conduct of the poll itself, EU leaders expressed their qualms about the kind of constitution Erdogan has put in place. For example, his post-referendum promise to reintroduce the death penalty was a snub to the human rights concerns of Brussels. Such a change might not completely kill off Turkey’s waning chances of joining the EU, but it would put the onus of the Europeans to call it a day.

Donald Trump’s response could hardly have been more different. He called President Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory. Trump emphasised Turkey’s recent revived cooperation with the US over IS as well as his decision to bomb the Syrian airbase from which the Pentagon judged President Assad had launched his most recent chemical attack.

Across the world the new US Administration is emphasising American strategic and security interests ahead of human rights issues. Its silence on such questions has been a deafening contrast with its predecessors.

For Europe, Turkey is more than a neighbour and certainly not just a strategic partner. Migration over the last 60 years from Anatolia to Europe’s industrial heartlands has created a Turkish constituency which the US does not have. While President Erdogan’s bête noire, Fethullah Gulen, may live in Pennsylvania, Turks are not a significant group either electorally or demographically in the America.

This means the US, particularly with Donald Trump as President, can view Turkey simply as an important square on the geo-strategic chessboard, in a way that Europe cannot. Angela Merkel, for instance, has millions of Turks and Kurds in Germany to think about as well as the complications of Turkey’s sensitive position as the staging post for mass migration from the Middle East to her country.

The German establishment has been rattled by the evident mass support for Erdogan’s authoritarian drive. For many Germans, the memory of Hitler’s manipulation of elections and use of the Reichstag Fire to justify an emergency dictatorship makes Erdogan’s reaction to the coup last year seem an eerie replay of their own dark history. What they find particularly disturbing is that Germans with a Turkish background educated in Germany seem so at ease with what German schools teach as historical mistakes not to be repeated.

With France’s presidential poll looming under the state of emergency imposed after terrorist attacks by French and Belgian citizens of North African heritage, most European fears about home-grown terrorism relate to the legacy of French colonial rule in the Maghreb.

Since neither Germany or the Netherlands ever had such a problematic relationship with Turkey, mass migration from the Anatolian hinterland had been regarded as a source of cheap labour. It was assumed that children and grandchildren, born and brought up in EU states would become “European”. Germany even changed its citizenship law to facilitate their naturalisation.

But Turks living inside the EU voted heavily for Erdogan’s project. For instance,  63 per cent  of Turks in Germany voted for Erdogan’s new powers. (By contrast only about 22 per cent of Britain’s much smaller Turkish expatriate community backed the President.) Similar numbers voted for Erdogan in Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Since many of these Turks were born in the EU and have joint-citizenship, Brussels now faces the reality that a significant dissatisfied Muslim minority in key states supports an authoritarian leader whom the EU leaders condemn. During the campaign Erdogan called on Germany’s Turks to have more babies. His secular opponents inside Turkey often accused the President of using demography to build up a pious, child-bearing electorate. Now democracies in the EU may see him using demography to challenge their democracies.

Tensions between pro-Erdogan Sunni Turks and Kurds are simmering in Europe’s biggest cities. France’s grim concrete banlieues have been a well-recognised security issue since their Islamo-criminal subculture spawned terrorism. Europe’s fear must be that a minority of similarly alienated young Turks is growing up in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, too.

Precisely because President Erdogan’s poll victory is so heavily contested by Kurdish groups both inside Turkey and also across Europe, his crackdown in Turkey’s south-east could exacerbate tensions between different migrant communities in the EU. His rhetoric dismissing European leaders as “crusaders” and domestic human rights activists as their lackeys does not bode well for relations between the EU and the Turkish state but it also helps poison the atmosphere between ordinary Turks living in the EU and their neighbours.

President Trump may see these problems as a vindication of his critique of the viability of a migrant-friendly EU. But even if his much-ridiculed remarks about Sweden’s domestic problems had a corn of truth to them, from Washington’s point of view major European economies like Germany or the Netherlands being destabilised by alienated and growing ethnic or religious minorities is hardly a recipe for cordial relations.

How to deal with terrorism which has afflicted Turkey even more than it has EU member states is something which has deadlocked the negotiations between Ankara and Brussels on the grand EU-Turkey deal which regulates migration.

Without EU subsidy, the cost of housing up to three million refugees and migrants will become unbearable for Turkey. Cutting costs by reopening his borders in the run up to Germany’s elections in September could be a game-changer there and relieve economic pressures at home in Turkey.

President Erdogan’s ability to play up these tensions with rhetoric but also with policies such as relaxing border controls to let a flood of people head over the Aegean towards Germany mean that even if Brussels says Turkey cannot hope to join the EU under his leadership, it can certainly influence politics inside the EU from the outside.

Maybe President Trump will decide that such power plays by Erdogan are not in America’s interests, even if Erdogan is on his page when it comes to Syria, Iran and IS. But no one can be certain how either Trump or Erdogan will react in the coming months. Uncertainty is a political weapon that Erdogan has found favours him, but the wider neighbourhood could do with predictability.

Mark Almond is a historian. His book 'Secular Turkey: A Short History' will be published later this month