Turkey risks missing historic EU opportunity

Turkey risks missing historic EU opportunity

“Brexit means more Germanification of the European Union, and you know that this is not good for us,” a Spanish participant told an Italian participant at a two-day conference I attended last week. One Dutch participant, on the other hand, underlined the lack of French leadership within the EU as a key concern for the Netherlands. Ironically, the event that brought them together was organized by a German think tank!
At a time when many European capitals are struggling with economic and political problems, (for instance Spain, where the conference took place, still has no government even after the Spaniards went to the ballot box for a second time), German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to assume leadership of the EU.

“Those who have visions should go see a doctor,” former German leader Helmut Schmidt once said, suggesting that he was a leader who took action when needed, unrestricted by the limits of ideology. It is worth sharing part of the Der Spiegel article written after Schmidt died in 2015:

“On [Schmidt’s] 90th birthday, Angela Merkel gave a speech for him. She spoke of how she, as a young woman in East Germany in 1962, followed the news on the other side of the border of the great flood in Hamburg, where she had been born. Her family in Hamburg was in danger but she said she was impressed by the un-bureaucratic action taken by Schmidt, who was a senior city-state official at the time. ‘In a moment of great need, he was able, through his presence, to give my family a very important feeling: Confidence,’ the chancellor said. ‘What more can one say about a politician?’”

It is interesting that a few years after Merkel gave this speech, she took action to welcome refugees to Europe despite the anti-immigration sentiment within her party’s constituency, particularly after seeing thousands drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean and the Aegean. 

Unable to convince other European capitals to accept more refugees, she then came knocking on the door of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, despite not being terribly fond of working with him.

In a deal with Ankara, Merkel promised visa liberalization in return for stopping illegal crossings from Turkey to Greece. The visa part of the deal is currently on hold, with disagreement on the issue of terrorism preventing the green light from being given for visa-free travel for Turks. In fact, just as Ankara and Brussels were on the verge of solving this impasse, the attempted military coup took place in Turkey on July 15. 

It is now unimaginable for the EU to grant visa-free travel to Turks, as if rewarding a country that is projecting the image of an authoritarian regime, sending thousands to jail, dismissing thousands from their jobs and closing dozens of media outlets.

Just as the EU was starting to understand the necessity of some measures taken by the government after the coup attempt, the prolongation of the state of emergency and the increasingly draconian measures that come with it have revived question marks on whether Erdoğan will exploit the opportunity to oppress all kinds of legal dissent. 

If this conviction takes root, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens will again become highly controversial. As a result, not only Turkey but the EU would miss a historic opportunity. Granting visa-free travel to Turks could be a historic psychological turning point, as it would not be followed a flood of Turkish migrants as feared by xenophobes in Europe. That in turn would weaken the hand of populists in Europe. 

Data from YouGov, which polled more than 12,000 people across the continent, recently revealed that almost half of adults in 12 European countries now hold anti-immigrant, nationalistic views.

The spread of fringe political views into the mainstream is dangerous both for Turks and Europeans. 

The EU should therefore quietly push Ankara towards speedy post-coup attempt normalization in return for visa liberalization. And while Merkel will be playing a key role in terms of how to deal with Turkey in the coming period, she should not be left alone.