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There could be an approaching crisis.

Barnabas Fund

Figure Image
President Erdogan with Chancellor Merkel | photo: Press Association Images

In late May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met at a UN human rights conference in Turkey.

After a meeting with the Turkish President, Chancellor Merkel said that she had expressed concern over Turkey’s creeping violations of human rights and told Mr Erdogan that the visa-free travel aspect of the EU-Turkey migrant deal could not go ahead unless Turkey reformed aspects of its anti-terror laws so that journalists, academics and political opponents are no longer arrested for ‘terror offences’.

However, following the meeting, the Turkish President’s office issued a statement saying that Mrs Merkel had ‘agreed to take Turkey’s sensitivities and priorities in the fight against terrorism into consideration’ and emphasised that Turkey ‘will not compromise in the fight against terrorism’. Terrorism is a term the Turkish Government often seems to use to refer to both its fight against Islamic State and Kurdish separatists.

Pressure on opposition MPs

The meeting with Mrs Merkel happened hard on the heels of a vote on 20 May in the Turkish Parliament, which is dominated by President Erdogan’s AK Party, to lift the legal immunity of MPs from prosecution. In effect, it allows MPs from opposition parties to be charged with insulting the President if they voice criticism, while MPs from the Pro-Kurdish opposition party, the HDP, could be charged with terrorism offences.

Mrs Merkel was the only G7 leader to attend the human rights summit, which some major aid agencies refused to attend due to Turkey’s record on human rights.

A coming crisis?

Many believe that relations between the EU and Turkey are heading for a crisis. In order to secure a deal to stem the huge flow of migrants heading towards Europe, Turkey has been offered a range of very substantial sweeteners. These include the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the EU and fast-track accession to join the EU, with a grant of 4.5 billion euros to help Turkey meet the conditions for EU membership. Yet, far from moving towards democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights, as required in order to join, Turkey is simply taking the money but moving in the opposite direction under its Islamist authoritarian president.

Yet the EU is also being somewhat disingenuous. On the one hand, it is holding out the prospect to Turkey of joining the EU in the not too distant future, while, on the other hand, both EU bureaucrats and heads of states are saying to people in existing EU countries that there is no realistic possibility of Turkey joining the EU in the foreseeable future.

Change of direction

Both sides are by their actions exacerbating a tension which could have very serious long-term implications for Turkey, the EU and the Middle East. Turkey, whose 75 million population is 99% Muslim, geographically straddles Europe and Asia. Politically, prior to Erdogan coming to power, it was leaning towards Europe and is a long-standing member of NATO. Yet, under Mr Erdogan’s Islamist leadership, it is now looking eastwards; in particular it is seeking to reassert Turkey’s historic claim to leadership of the Islamic world.

Thus, two possible scenarios emerge, both of which the EU needs to avoid at all costs, but which at the moment it appears to have no strategy to avoid.

First, Turkey is able to use the migrant deal to persuade the EU to quietly ignore its human rights standards and allow it to join the EU. It would then be the largest EU country and consequently have the largest voting power. Its Islamist and authoritarian values would inevitably influence EU decision-making.

Secondly, if ordinary people in Turkey realise that they are not going to be allowed to join the EU in the foreseeable future, the expectations that have been raised could push it in the opposite direction. That is a direction that President Erdogan is already taking it in, yet the popular distrust that could be engendered by the EU appearing to deny Turkish citizens what they believe they have been promised would give President Erdogan the excuse he needs to further Islamise Turkey.

Ambiguity towards jihad

Add to this mix the fact that the Turkish intelligence agency has long had an ambiguous relationship with jihadist groups in Syria. Earlier in May, two journalists were jailed for reporting state secrets after revealing that Turkish intelligence was shipping arms to fighters in Syria, almost certainly those fighting against Kurdish forces who are themselves fighting against Islamic State. Then, in late May, another journalist was legally deprived of her right to be a mother after reporting on that court case.

If Turkey were to openly side with any of the jihadist groups in Syria it would provoke a crisis within NATO as to whether Turkey could continue to be a member, which would almost inevitably push Turkey further towards becoming an Islamic state and make the plight of Turkey’s Christians and ethnic minorities even worse than they presently are.

Bundestag vote

The tipping point which could determine which way Turkey slides is the vote that took place in the Bundestag (German Parliament) on 2 June to recognise the Armenian genocide, in which upwards of 1.5 million Christians are thought to have died and, along with simultaneous genocide of Turkey’s Assyrian and Greek Christians, directly led to the killing and deportation of virtually all Christians in Turkey. Turkey continues to deny that the genocide happened and it is a serious criminal offence to even refer to it in Turkey. The vote in the Bundestag was almost unanimous, with only one vote against and one abstention, as German MPs voted to recognise the Armenian genocide and Germany’s complicity in it as a WWI ally of Turkey.

Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador. It was expected that Turkey would overreact, the only question being how much it will do so and whether it will cancel the migrant deal.

Such a move would undoubtedly be popular in Turkey and could significantly increase support for President Erdogan and his Islamist agenda. This may of course be exactly what President Erdogan intends as he seeks to reassert Turkey’s historic leadership role in the Islamic world.

At the moment, however, EU politicians seem blissfully unaware of all this. The EU urgently needs to recognise the danger and find a way through this that makes Turkey live up to its human rights commitments (including to its Christian minority), face up to its past and at the same time avoid galvanising support for President Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions.