It is now almost common practice in today’s Turkey that political decisions, triggering a national crisis in other countries, are simply taken overnight.
When Turkish citizens woke up on March 20, the president had fired the recently appointed head of the central bank, withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and removed the symbolic Gezi Park from the control of the opposition-led city administration of Istanbul.
All three points are important for the relationship with Europe. The central bank chief was a guarantor of a more stable monetary policy, which should also calm major European investors, the so-called Istanbul Convention is considered a watershed for which repression against civil society may come. The Gezi Park, namesake of the anti-government protests of 2013 and the question of its development, stands for the question of whether the government is capable of compromising with its opponents or insists on wiping out all symbols of the opposition.
With his decisions, President Erdogan gave an answer to all three points, contradicting what the EU is striving for for the country: a democratic Turkey that can be a reliable partner for Europe.
Just a few hours earlier, Erdoǧan had phoned EU Commission President von der Leyen and EU Council President Michel. The communique published afterwards does not mention any of the events that followed shortly thereafter. It didn’t even mention the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in a subordinate clause.
The EU was taken by surprise – as is so often the case
As so often, it can be assumed that the EU was completely taken by surprise by the Turkish approach. It is the Turkish President who sets the agenda that Europeans can only breathe and often just as helplessly groan after. Of course, one has to object that it is difficult for the EU to pull a rope from the fact that it cannot foresee the future. In a country like Turkey, where everything seems to be possible politically at any time, you can hardly be prepared for all eventualities. However, the steps taken in late March are only the next round of a domestic escalation spiral that already started in 2013.
The reactions from Brussels have been the phrase that has been uttered again and again for years: one is “very worried”. While the EU is still lost in worries, the Turkish government is creating facts. Even if the EU Council certainly considered sanctions against Turkey – at least in theory, because it has already been leaked that the German government, among others, does not support them – these are only aimed at Ankara’s increasingly aggressive behavior that has been going on for some time in the Mediterranean. The EU calls this roadmap, which always throws the same unrealistic incentives for the modernization of the customs union or visa-free travel through the area, a “positive agenda.”
The motto, which is given not at least from Berlin, is clear: No matter the cost, the relationship with Turkey must remain stable, and Turkey must also remain stable as much as possible. When Chancellor Merkel met representatives of Turkish civil society in Istanbul a few years ago, they reported in detail on the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation. The Chancellor listened and replied that of course she was aware of all these points, but that in view of the refugee crisis they were not her priority. One might object that this is “realpolitik” par excellence, Merkel is first and foremost the Chancellor of Germany, not Turkey.
The question is not only what domestic political price the Turks pay for this Realpolitik, which Berlin and Brussels can coolly dismiss as regrettable collateral damage, but also whether the continuation of this policy in the mid term does not threaten European interests itself.
A problem of German foreign policy has always been self-dwelling
What is a partnership worth in which one partner continually carries out foreign policy volts in order to maintain his own power? How stable is a state whose head of government bases its election campaign strategy on the polarization of the population? Domestic and foreign policy in Turkey are closely linked. Where rapprochement with Europe is on the roadmap today, it will, if it appears expedient, be sacrificed for the next election campaign. This is not a domestic Turkish problem, it directly threatens European interests.
A problem of German and EU foreign policy has always been their self-minimization. As long as one refers to realpolitical constraints, one never has to deal with the question of how one could become effective in terms of foreign policy. You don’t have to be a utopian to see that the balance of power between Turkey and the EU is clearly in favor of the latter. The Turkish President has been able to reverse this relationship almost completely in recent years, because Berlin does not dare to imagine that conflicts can be resolved in any other way than by de-escalation.