The day has finally come. Emperor May has given the order to execute Article 50. Begun, the Brexit Wars have. The board is set. The pieces are moving. Aaand that’s enough cinematic references for one day.
However, on a day when the overwhelming majority of attention will naturally be focused on Brexit, I wanted to discuss a different subject: Turkey’s relationship with the EU. Partly that’s for the sake of my own sanity (if I spend any more time thinking or talking about Brexit I may start bleeding from the ears) but partly it’s because, over the long-term, this relationship may well end up having an equally significant impact on the future of the EU.
The relationship between Turkey and the EU has long been fraught with difficulties. Partly that’s a simple result of history and geography. Turkey has always been considered the gateway between the continents of Europe and Asia, but straddling that line comes with its own distinct questions of identity. Should Turkey be considered European, or part of the Middle-East, or both, or neither? Religiously, it is a majority-Muslim nation, aligning it with most of the rest of the Middle-East, but Turkey has its own language, its own distinct culture and its own history of Empire (the Ottoman Empire, which at its peak ruled the majority of Southeast Europe, parts of Central Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa). In a modern foreign policy sense, Turkey is a full member of NATO (aligning it with the ‘West’ in security terms) and an official applicant for EU membership since 1987. However, progress on that application has been glacially slow. 35 ‘Chapters’ need to be completed for Turkey to reach full membership. So far, they have finished just one. As David Cameron memorably put it during the Brexit referendum campaign, at the current rate, Turkey looks set to join the EU “sometime around the year 3000”. The issues are numerous: from ongoing human rights abuses in Turkey, to the status of Cyprus (which is split between Greek and Turkish regions), to cultural and demographic concerns amongst some EU members about the effect of a Muslim-majority nation with a population roughly the same size as Germany joining the organisation.
One factor above all has ratcheted up the tension over the last few years: the current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His regime is a toxic combination of ‘Strongman’ populism with elements of Islamism thrown in for good measure. Since an attempted coup last year, in which the Turkish military tried and failed to remove him from power, the situation has only deteriorated further. Not one to miss out on exploiting a crisis, Erdogan immediately began purging everyone opposed to his regime. Everyone. Politicians, judges, journalists and soldiers. His crackdown was so immediate and so wide-ranging that questions remain as to whether the attempted ‘coup’ was really engineered by Erdogan himself as a convenient excuse to crush the opposition. Whether that’s true or not, Erdogan certainly made the most of the opportunity handed to him. His current attention is focused on a constitutional referendum in Turkey which, if passed, will give him sweeping and unprecedented new powers. More on that in a minute.
Why does any of this matter to the EU? One reason above all: The Migrant Crisis. The ongoing civil wars in Syria and Iraq, as well as conflicts in other parts of the Middle-East, have created huge flows of refugees and economic migrants seeking to enter Europe. Many of these people take a route through Turkey, which has vast land borders with both Syria and Iraq. The UN estimates the number of migrants and refugees passing through Turkey to be in the millions. The political momentum in Europe has mainly been aimed at finding ways to slow the flow of people. A deal between the EU and Turkey reached in 2016 stated that any migrants arriving in Greece who failed to apply for asylum or whose application was rejected would be sent back to Turkey. Whether or not you consider that approach to be particularly ‘humane’, the reality is that dealing with Turkey is a necessity on this issue. An unfortunate side-effect of the deal was to give Erdogan a huge amount of leverage in his future dealings with the EU. Indeed, he has since repeatedly threatened to direct millions of refugees and migrants towards Europe as a grotesque form of blackmail if he doesn’t get his way.
All this should provide some background and context for the recent outbreak of a vicious diplomatic spat between the governments of Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands. The basic issue was this: Erdogan has launched a referendum in Turkey to give himself extensive new powers. There are millions of Turkish citizens living in Europe who all have the right to vote in that referendum. Erdogan wants their votes. As the band The Offspring once said, he wants them bad. In an attempt to win them over, he organised a series of rallies in a number of European countries. The government of the Netherlands were not too keen on the idea of a political rally for a foreign government being organised in their country and refused to give permission for it to take place. Turkey’s not-at-all childish response was to sneak a minister into the country and attempt to hold the rally regardless. The Dutch government, slightly miffed at this deception, banned said minister from the country. Erdogan, ever the calm voice of reason, accused them of being Nazis. After the German government expressed their support for their Dutch colleagues, they too were accused of Nazism. Now, this may seem like a statement of the slightly obvious, but the modern-day Germans don’t take too kindly to being called Nazis. It has some minor historical connotations. The end result is Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands staring daggers at each other whilst EU and NATO officials try with increasing desperation to cool the temperature.
What might the consequences be? Well, Erdogan has again threatened to pull the plug on the migrant deal which, if he goes through with it, would have a huge impact on domestic politics in Europe. Many of the emergent Populist parties across Europe owe their rapid rise to the shockwaves caused by the Migrant Crisis. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that, without the Migrant Crisis, Brexit may well not have happened. Any lingering prospect of Turkish EU membership has also vanished beyond sight. This creates issues for official EU/NATO co-operation due to the contested status of Cyprus (which is a member of the EU, but not of NATO). With its EU relationship now poisoned, Turkey has increasingly turned to Russia as a security partnership, particularly over Syria. This obviously comes with a whole range of geo-strategic problems for both the EU and the US (although perhaps not as much as if that ‘Golden Shower’ tape of Trump with the prostitutes turns out to be real).
Hopefully your head is now full of images of Trump getting peed on. Still beats thinking about Brexit.