Turkey’s dispute with Europe feeds Erdogan’s power thirst

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 10, 2017, in Moscow. Photo handout from the Kremlin

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
March 18, 2017

The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte this week saw off a serious populist challenge from bleach-blonde Islamaphobe Geert Wilders, but in so doing he has unwittingly given another demagogue the leg-up he needs to achieve supreme power.

The diplomatic face-off between the Netherlands and Turkey in the last days of the campaign undoubtedly had a significant effect on the outcome of the Dutch election. But it also was a gift to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in the final weeks of a referendum campaign that, if successful, will give him almost dictatorial powers.

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Photo handout, Turkish press office
Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Photo handout, Turkish press office


Until now, Turks have been sharply divided on whether or not to transfer almost all power from parliament to an executive presidency under Erdogan. And Erdogan himself had run out of new ideas about how to entice the two or three per cent of voters he needs to fulfil his lust for power.

Then came resistance to his campaign, first from Germany and then from the Netherlands. Both countries blocked Erdogan’s ministers and campaign organizers from holding rallies among the very large Turkish diasporas in both their countries. Erdogan reacted by going into rhetorical overdrive, accusing both Germany and the Netherlands of nursing Nazi sentiments.

There are about 400,000 Turks in the Netherlands, where the population is 17 million, and around 2 million Turks in Germany, whose population is 80 million.

In both countries the Turkish immigrants are sharply divided over the April 16 referendum. And both the German and Dutch governments had good reason to fear that campaign rallies on behalf of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party could get out of hand.

In Germany, several cities banned planned rallies where members of Erdogan’s government would address the crowds. Some of the excuses sounded slender – lack of parking spaces in one case and fire safety concerns in another – and were easily derided by Erdogan. He accused the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel of “Nazi practices.”

The Dutch had even more reason than the Germans to be wary of allowing Erdogan’s backers to excite the sharp political divisions among Turks in the Netherlands. The Netherlands was in the final days of the parliamentary election held on Wednesday, March 15, and issues around the country’s Muslim immigrants were a central theme of the campaign. Wilders and his Freedom Party led in the polls for much of the campaign with a manifesto of ending Muslim immigration, banning the Koran, closing mosques and taking the Netherlands out of the European Union (EU).

Last Saturday the Dutch government revoked landing rights for a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who planned to speak at a rally. Then Dutch police blocked Family Minister, Beytul Kaya, from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam and forced her to drive back to Germany, from where she had come.

The Rotterdam incident spurred hundreds of Erdogan’s Turkish supporters to take to the streets, and the Dutch police deployed riot squads to restore order.

Erdogan’s government manufactured some fine outrage. The president’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, pushed out a tweet saying the Dutch action was “a dark day for democracy in Europe. Shame on the Dutch government for succumbing to anti-Islam racists and fascists.”

Erdogan chased this theme down the road on Friday in a speech to his supporters in the western Turkish city of Sakarya.

“My dear brothers, a battle has started between the cross and the half moon. There can be no other explanation,” he said in a crude reference to the symbols of Christianity and Islam that adorned the opposing flags in the Crusades of the Middle Ages.

He was even more explicit when he said a ruling on Tuesday by the European Court of Justice permitting companies to ban employees wearing religious symbols, including the headscarf worn by devout Muslim women, as the beginning of a European “crusade” against Islam.

Erdogan went on to threaten to jettison the year-old agreement with the EU to control the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe.

There are nearly three million refugees from the six-year Syrian civil war in camps in Turkey. In 2015, the Erdogan government turned a blind eye and may even have encouraged about one million of the refugees to leave the camps and make the short sea crossing into Greece, the closest EU member country. The torrent of people seeking sanctuary caused a humanitarian and social crisis across the EU, especially as the Syrians added to tens of thousands of people fleeing other parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and West Africa.

Under the terms of the March 2016 deal, Ankara agreed to stop asylum seekers from crossing by sea to the Greek islands in return for the equivalent of $5 billion to finance support for the Syrians in Turkey.

Syrian refugees who had reached the Greek islands were to be returned to Turkey, while qualified Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey were to be resettled in the EU.

Erdogan is now saying that Turkey will no longer readmit failed asylum-seekers from the EU, which raises the prospect of the whole deal unravelling. The Turkish leader is clearly prepared to open the tap on another flow of refugees into Europe if it suits his political purposes.

He is playing a risky game, with potentially disastrous effects on Turkey’s long-term relation not only with Europe, but also with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Ankara is a member.

For close to half a century Turkey has been flirting with joining Europe’s economic community. There has been mixed enthusiasm for the match on both sides.

European leaders have looked askance at the very intrusive role the Turkish military has played in politics until very recently. The military regarded itself as the trustee of the secular Turkish state founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923, and regularly launched coups – or threatened to do so – when politicians headed off in directions the generals didn’t like.

An over-crowded graveyard is pictured in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Erdogan, however, since he came to power first as Prime Minister in 2003 and then as President in 2014, has successfully turned Turkey towards becoming an Islamic state and has nullified the independent power of the military at the same time. An attempted coup by elements of the military last year played into Erdogan’s hands. Since then about 140,000 members of the military, the judiciary, academia and the media have either been imprisoned, detained, or fired from their jobs.

Erdogan’s Islamization policies have made European leaders even more suspicious about welcoming Turkey into the EU than before. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke for many when he said Turkish membership of the EU is “unthinkable.”

Even if the major European leaders were more amenable to Turkey in the EU it would be vetoed by member state Cyprus. The island has been partitioned since 1974 when Turkey invaded and occupied northern Cyprus to protect the majority Turkish population in that region against Greek annexation. The dispute remains unresolved and EU member Cyprus, the southern portion of the island with its ethnic Greek majority, will block Turkey joining the EU until there is a settlement.

But Erdogan’s spat with Germany and the Netherlands fits into a pattern of actions by the Turkish President over several years, turning his country away from Europe and the West. He is behaving as though his prime objective is to restore Turkey as a major mover and shaker in the Middle East, a position it lost with the end of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

That is most evident in the often duplicitous role Erdogan has played in the Syrian civil war. Early on, he allowed Turkey to be a highway for foreign fighters seeking to join the Islamic State terrorist, fundamentalist group occupying much of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. And when Erdogan did agree to join his NATO allies in military action in Syria, he focussed on attacking Syrian Kurds, who he accuses of being allies and supporters of the independence movement among Turkish Kurds.

Even so, Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies appear to be functional at the moment. Ankara is working with Washington and Moscow in the early stages of talks to fashion a joint plan to bring peace to Syria.

What effects the outcome of the April 16 referendum will have are difficult to gauge. The prospect of Erdogan’s pleasure at a victory and achieving near despotic power is unsavoury. But even more so is the chaos his anger may unleash if he loses.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com



Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.