Reason should prevail in Turkey-Europe row

Reason should prevail in Turkey-Europe row

Two weeks ago, this column suggested that campaign for the April 16 referendum on shifting Turkey to a presidential system of government was in a trend toward normalization, with the two camps beginning to use milder language to avoid direct criticism of each other. 

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had at that point ceased categorizing “No” voters as either “terrorists” or “terror supporters,” while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had moved beyond targeting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an individual and instead focused on underlining the “regime change” to one-man rule. 

Although this “normalcy” regarding domestic campaigning continues in Turkey, we have been observing a snowballing crisis between the AKP and European capitals, after the former’s ministers’ were blocked from holding a number of meetings with the Turkish community in various European countries. 

There are around 2.8 million Turkish voters living abroad – almost all of them in Western Europe - and all political parties have good reason to try to woo their votes, especially for the upcoming referendum. Given the fact that opinion polls indicate a close race between the two camps, it is only natural for Turkish politicians to chase every single vote. 

However, the current political situation in European countries is not ideal for Turkish politicians to turn the entire continent into their constituency. Germany will go to elections this fall, the Netherlands on March 15, and France on April 23, with politics and values in many countries under a growing threat from far-right and even racist politicians fueling already existing xenophobic, Islamophobic and racist waves in the continent. 

Geert Wilders’ party in Netherlands is very close to becoming the top party in next week’s polls, while Marine Le Pen will likely qualify for the second round of the presidential elections in France. With the Brexit effect, far-right parties are increasing their votes and weight on European politics, which also influences center-right and center-left parties.   

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu bluntly made this point at a press conference on March 9, suggesting that European politics has been “surrendered to far-right wing, racist politicians” at the expense of endangering the future of Europe and its values. 

This assessment, which is shared by senior government officials in Turkey, has a point. European politicians, media, intellectuals and universities should be well aware of this growing danger and take necessary steps to reverse it. It will be to the advantage of centrist politicians in Europe to cooperate with Turkey and its politicians in creating bridges between Turkish and European communities. 

On the other hand, it will also be to Turkey’s advantage to lend an ear to what their European counterparts with common sense tell them about the deterioration of fundamental human rights in Turkey and the country’s degraded image abroad. One of the most important factors behind today’s tension is the fact that neither side listens to each other anymore, as they are all concerned with short-term gains in the polls. 

Elections and referendums will take place and be left in the past, but the damage to bilateral ties, to Turkey’s negotiations, and to the security and well-being of the Turkish communities in Europe, will not easily recover. 

The AKP may well think a political fight and quarrel with the EU, Germany or the Netherlands will help it to consolidate nationalist votes ahead of polls, but it should also consider the cost this strategy has for Turkish interests.