Erdoğan willingly falling into Merkel’s trap of privileged partnership

Erdoğan willingly falling into Merkel’s trap of privileged partnership

“My son got a divorce from his wife and since then their relationship has improved. Once they were spared the responsibilities of marriage, they started to get along better.”

What I heard from a relative two days ago made me think of Turkey–EU relations, especially amid the crisis that erupted after Holland banned Turkish politicians from campaigning in the country. 

One might expect common sense to prevail and a process of damage control to start, after the crisis peaked over the weekend (with both the Dutch and the Turks to blame). However, both Ankara and other European capitals are rushing to a collision course. Are things getting out of control? Or are we dealing with a farce where each side knows where we are headed?

Looking at the statements, it seems that neither side is too worried about a train crash. On the contrary, they seem to prefer living with what will be left of the train wreck: The end of Ankara’s EU membership process, to be replaced by a new model combining cooperation in the fight against terror with reinforced economic relations. 

Such a scenario would effectively amount to a no-strings-attached model. Instead of being loyal to its democratic partner, Turkey could share her bed with anti-democratic partners. Turkish governments will not have to abide by the Copenhagen democratic criteria and therefore answer to criticism from Europe. In turn, European capitals will not have to answer to criticism from their public about keeping a country that restricts fundamental freedoms, throwing journalists and academics in jail, within the membership process. 

The Turkish government talks about “sanctions” against the Netherlands, but there is no word on economic relations. This is not surprising, as Ankara cannot afford to jeopardize ties with one of its best economic partners.

Similarly, while suspending membership talks is an issue frequently considered in European circles, few would talk about suspending the process to update the customs union with Turkey.

With the situation as it is currently, one should probably raise a hat to Germen Chancellor Angela Merkel, as this is what she has been arguing for since the day she came to power: A “privileged partnership” for Turkey.

Ankara initially rejected that idea, arguing that Turkey was already a privileged partner of the EU and stressing that it wanted to be a member, not a partner. Now, with its current rhetoric, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is sending a clear message that it does not see Turkey as a member of the same family. This is exactly what the coalition made up of Christian Democrats, xenophobes and Islamophobes has long argued for in Europe. 

However, decoupling economic from democratic ties will be against the interests of both Turkey and the EU.
A Turkey that is politically distanced from the EU could neither thrive economically as fast as it could, nor could it play the regional role it aspires to play. 

The Europeans would also stand to lose - not just in the long run but also in the short run. Last year’s Brexit vote shows how populist rhetoric can lead a country to a total mess. Taking anti-democratic measures against the leader of a Muslim-majority country is not the right way to combat populist politicians exploiting anti–immigrant feelings.

As rightly put in the Guardian’s editorial, as the crisis took place only a few days before the general election in the Netherlands, “[Dutch Prime Minister] Mark Rutte, has chosen to make use of the clash with Mr. Erdoğan to cast himself as a bulwark against anything that smacks of Muslim pressures. Rather than trying to counter Mr. [Geert] Wilders’s arguments, he is trying to outflank him on the right, a tactic as unpleasant as it is cynical.”

Other EU capitals have been supportive of the Netherlands and are flirting with the idea of endorsing a similar approach, as they will face requests from Turkish officials to come and campaign before the referendum on shifting to an executive presidency, set for April 16.

However, as also pointed out by the Guardian, there are many dangers to Rutte’s approach. The first is that mainstream parties, in an effort to neutralize populists like the far-right, anti-Muslim, xenophobic Wilders, actually “allow him to set the agenda.” In other words, mainstream politicians allow themselves to be taken hostage by populist politicians. The second danger is that it is not by bashing Erdoğan that mainstream politicians in Holland will succeed in alleviating the worries of Wilders’ followers; it will only save one day, and it is not even sure that it will do that.