Analysis

Erdogan Wields Powerful Weapon in Battle With European Union

The Turkish president is threatening to swamp Europe with refugees if it withdraws from talks about Turkey’s accession to the EU.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan adjusts earphones during a news conference in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, September 5, 2016.
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/

“Who do you think you are? You’re only the chairman of the European Parliament. Since when do you have the authority to decide for Turkey?”

Thus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lambasted Martin Schulz, president of the EU parliament, last week. Even given Erdogan’s normally colorful language, the outburst was unprecedented.

Erdogan’s anger spilled over after a series of remarks by Schulz, in which he suggested that talks over Turkey’s accession to the EU might have to be reconsidered and Turkey might even have to be punished – in other words, become the target of sanctions – if it didn’t halt its detention of political rivals, journalists and everyone suspected of involvement in July’s attempted coup.

What most irked the EU was Erdogan’s plan to restore the death penalty, which had been repealed in 2005 as part of the EU’s requirements.

“The dramatic backsliding of Turkey in terms of rule of law, democracy and freedom of media seems to have reached the point of no return,” said Gianni Pittella, head of the socialist bloc in the European Parliament, last week. “We still hope Ankara will turn back on the track of democracy. Currently the minimum conditions to proceed with accession talks do not exist,” he added.

The socialists are not the only ones who deplore the conduct of the Turkish government, which to date has fired or suspended over 140,000 civil servants, closed some 4,000 companies and private organizations, and arrested about 100,000 “suspects” – among them 12 leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Another shot was fired at Erdogan about two weeks ago by two conservative candidates for the French presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, who issued almost identical statements, saying that “Turkey has no place in the European Union.” (Sarkozy has since been eliminated from the French Republicans’ primary.)

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who represents a more subtle and diplomatic line, explained to Erdogan in a meeting last week that “the ball for accession is in the Turkish court.”

Europe’s leaders also disapprove of Erdogan’s aspiration to alter the Turkish constitution to establish a presidential regime. As an ostensibly similar system is in use in the United States and France, Erdogan responds as if he doesn’t understand their misgivings. But the difference is in the responsibilities he looks to acquire.

As stated in the draft of the new constitution – which is currently being debated by the Turkish parliament – Erdogan would be able to dismiss parliament; impose policy through presidential orders, thus bypassing parliament; dismiss the Defense Ministry, which he apparently wants to make answerable to himself; and be the authority that appoints ministers, judges, university rectors and senior-ranking civil servants.

Refugees waiting for the arrival of officals at Nizip refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey, April 2016.
Umit Bektas/Reuters

Erdogan, who has been accused of wanting to dismantle the legacy of the secular Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is in fact acting precisely like the father of the Turkish republic.

At the start of his career, Atatürk turned the Turkish parliament into the executive branch, headed by himself; hired and fired ministers at will; caused political opponents to flee the country or leave politics; and changed the face of the country by force.

Like Atatürk – who struggled against foreign powers and succeeded in redrawing the borders of the country after they had been torn to pieces by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 – Erdogan doesn’t believe in multiple parties, which he says prevents efficient management of the state, and is taking a hard line in the talks with the EU.

He is armed with a particularly powerful weapon: the “refugee agreement” that was signed in March.

According to the agreement, Turkey will receive 6 billion euros ($6.3 billion) over a period of several years. In return, it will reabsorb immigrants who entered Europe illegally and prevent further refugees from arriving in Europe from Turkey.

Until now, less than 300 million euros has been transferred to Turkey and the agreement is hanging by a thread. The EU is not prepared to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens until Turkey changes its anti-terror legislation, which provides extreme powers to the Turkish security forces.

Erdogan argues that the law is necessary in the war against terror, and is warning that the refugee law won’t be implemented without visa-free travel.

“We’ll see what you do if three million refugees [the amount currently in Turkey] arrive in European countries,” he said on Al Jazeera.

Erdogan believes the refugees are the best human shield he has against European sanctions or a freeze of the accession talks. He is convinced the EU will blink first, because its countries need Turkey to defend them against a further wave of refugees and they believe the accession talks are an effective means of restraining Turkey.

He’s not far from the truth. The polite EU leaders will have to decide at their next summit meeting what is most important to them: halting the refugees or teaching Turkey a lesson in human rights.

In order to persuade them, Erdogan released another trial balloon last week. He announced that if the EU talks are frozen, he will call a referendum on joining the union. It will be up to the “Turkish people” to decide what is good for them, and the “people of Europe” will discover the price.