Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Confronting Turkey: The looming challenge for the West

Confronting Turkey: The looming challenge for the West
Published 8 Aug 2016 

Turkey’s relations with its Western allies and partners, with the lone exception of Netanyahu’s Israel, are on a steep slide towards open hostility. Millions of first and second generation Turks live and work in Europe as either refugees or as guest workers and it is geographically too close not to be directly impacted as Turkey's increasingly Islamic and authoritarian regime tightens its grip.

Some 3 million people of Turkish descent live in Germany (total population 80.6 million), and around half of these hold a Turkish passport. Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden have much smaller – but proportionally still sizeable – Turkish populations. After the failed coup attempt by the military in Turkey one month ago, President Recep Erdogan’s one party (AKP) government has not hesitated to export its domestic crackdown, marshalling the Turkish diaspora to achieve this outcome. A recent mass-gathering by supporters of Erdogan in Cologne was intended to show AKP’s reach abroad and scare opponents of the Erdogan regime in Germany, It was a none-too-subtle reminder there is potential for serious troublemaking on German soil.



AKP’s instrument in in German-speaking Europe goes under the innocuous name of ‘Union Europäisch-Türkischer Demokraten' (UETD), or Union of European-Turkish Democrats. Its methods, however, are anything but inoffensive. How many of the 40,000 demonstrators in Cologne came of their own free will is difficult to say, given UETD officials have openly threatened to pursue all Turks abroad who are not faithful to Erdogan. Several individuals and at least one private school run by followers of Erdogan’s Islamic arch-enemy Fethullah Gülen have filed harassment and intimidation complaints with the Swiss police.

When the likes of global port operator PSA Singapore and the French multinational hotel group Accor Hotels join Turkish firms to take a full page ad in the Financial Times newspaper headed ‘Turkish Economy keeps moving up’ – when most indicators suggest the opposite – economic strong-arming may not be far away.

This export of domestic policies is only one part of the serious and growing problem Turkey poses for Europe and the EU. [fold]

Emboldened by the successful elimination of any internal opposition in the wake of the putsch, the Erdogan regime appears ready to force a showdown over its migrant agreement with Brussels. This accord obliges Turkey to block uncontrolled migration across its border to Greece in exchange for money to house migrants on its own soil, increased resettlement of Sryian refugees now in Turkey in the EU, visa-free travel of Turks to the EU, and an acceleration of Turkey`s EU membership negotiations.

Lopsided and concluded under duress when major EU governments, especially Germany, were desperate to stop the flow of migrants last summer, the agreement is coming apart at the seams. Last week the Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat, not only agreed with those who predicted  the re-installment of the death penalty in Turkey would make EU membership impossible, but called on Brussels to break off the negotiations. Coming from the historical arch-enemy of Turkey, this went down particularly badly in Ankara where the Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu called Kern a shining example of Europe’s current ethno-nationalism.

It also led to a rather unreal scene at the annual meeting of foreign Ministers from German-speaking countries (yes, there is such an event, attended by ministers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein), when Steinmeier of Germany, a Social Democrat, flatly contradicted his Austrian colleague, a conservative, on the topic of EU-Turkish relations, saying Turkey was far too important for Germany and Europe to leave it out in the cold. 

On the surface this is no more than political posturing, but there is a real and grave danger ahead. If Erdogan persists in its headlong rush towards authoritarian government, just possibly taking its country to sectarian (AKP is ever more radical Sunni, the opposition mainly Shia and/or religiously moderate) and political hell, Western countries might have to choose sides.

We are not there yet. As a key state between the Occident and the old Orient, traditionally anchored solidly in Western contractual structures (NATO, Council of Europe) and, till lately, among the most promising emerging markets, Turkey is simply too important for the West to push into into the global axis of illiberal governments from Moscow to Beijing.

At the same time, Europe cannot simply wait and and hope for the best, which would be the return to a semblance of democratic sanity in Ankara. The US appears to have less urgency but then there is Turkey's request to Washington to extradite Fethullah Gülen.

It could be the West will have to face the ultimate ‘Turkish question’ sooner rather than later.

You may also be interested in