Analysis

Europe Shows Erdogan It Can Also Wield Policy From the Gut

After the EU held its nose in order to prevent refugees flocking in from Turkey, the continent is now showing no mercy ahead of next month’s referendum.

A large image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan placed outside the Turkish consulate during protests in Rotterdam, Netherlands, March 11, 2017.
DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS

The Europeans are still trying to bite their tongues and repress the urge to give Recep Tayyip Erdogan a taste of his own medicine – to curse and abuse him like he does European leaders, call him a fascist or a war criminal because of the way he runs his war against the Kurds in his own country, describe Turkey as a terror-supporting state, as Erdogan called Germany and the Netherlands, and present Turkey’s human rights situation as befitting a third-world dictatorship, not a country seeking to join the elite club of the European Union.

However, Europe is shutting up for the time being. Its leaders call on Erdogan “to lower the tone,” “maintain a decent style” and mainly to calm down. Indeed, the European states have not emerged justified in the latest confrontation with Turkey.

The EU condemned Erdogan’s brutal assault on his political rivals, whether they were involved in the failed coup or criticized him without any connection to the coup. But the European states held their breath and lost their sense of smell when they signed the refugee exchange agreement with Turkey – an agreement including a promise to advance Turkey’s joining the EU, a six-billion-euro grant and readiness to cancel visa requirements for Turkish citizens visiting Europe. They let Erdogan believe that the refugee deal was more important than the rights of Turkish judges, policemen, journalists and intellectuals.

And Erdogan didn’t miss the significance of the leverage laid at his door. While he didn’t get the visa exemption, he still can threaten to renege on the refugee deal and scare the pants off Europe if he decides to withdraw from the agreement.

This is the new threat he is waving before European determination not to allow the Turkish prime minister and government ministers to wage a propaganda campaign among some 5.5 million Turks living in Europe, some 3.5 million of them in Germany and another 400,000 in the Netherlands. As someone who sees himself as the head of a global power, Erdogan is even threatening levying sanctions on the Netherlands and other countries that prevent him from speaking directly with the Turkish public abroad. It is the most important constituency for the Turkish president, who fears that without support of Turks abroad he won’t be able to attain the necessary support to amend the constitution.

It is hard to know if this fear is justified, but given the fact that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed in the elections to win the necessary majority to amend the constitution without a referendum, Erdogan cannot afford to ignore Turks living abroad. It seems in a cost-benefit analysis that Erdogan made the decision to put domestic policy over foreign policy, to win the referendum even if victory will come at the expense of the friendship of several European countries – or even at the expense of the chance to join the EU.

Indeed, Erdogan is also a rational politician, who has long understood that Turkey’s path to the EU in any event is not paved with good intentions on the part of Europe, and that many years will pass until Turkey will be able, if ever, to wave the blue flag with yellow stars of the EU over its institutions.

Until then, he needs to look after his political survival, his broad authorities and governing without restraint. If doing so pushes off the debate on Turkey joining Europe, it’s not so bad. Europe still needs the large Turkish market, the Turkish wall of defense against a refugee flood and Turkish military bases and Turkish cooperation in the war against ISIS. It is a mutual dependency, in which Europe is Turkey’s largest trading partner, and even if it doesn’t join the EU it cannot forego the trade agreements it has with the continent.

However, the interesting question is what drove countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Austria to prevent the appearances of the Turkish ministers before Turkish audiences. The official excuse is the fear of an eruption of violence and clashes between Erdogan supporters and his opponents in the European Turkish community. This fear is not unfounded, but one could surmise that had it been Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu or all the more so Yair Lapid holding the appearances in city squares for a domestic political goal, European police forces would have found a way to secure the appearances.

However, Europeans despise the constitutional amendments Erdogan is seeking approval for, and hence the small, if petty, revenge being waged against him. Erdogan cannot recruit support on my land for the crazy law he wants to legislate.

How lofty and admirable can this claim be, coming from countries that sufficed with mumbling condemnations of Turkey’s behavior toward the Kurds, in light of the brutal suppression of the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and some of them are very cautious not to define the slaughter of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. No disaster would have happened had they let the Turkish ministers appear in some conferences in European cities, had they not jumped all over the convoy of the minister for family affairs and let her reach Rotterdam.

It seems that not only Erdogan knows how to wield policy from the gut.