Opinion Dangerous Liaisons

Unable to reach an internal agreement, the EU has turned to Turkey in an effort to solve the refugee crisis. But by doing so, Europe is strengthening President Erdogan's position as he transforms his country into a Putin-style autocracy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: a volatile autocrat and Europe's best friend.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: a volatile autocrat and Europe's best friend.


Europe has a new best friend. His name is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish president, of all people, the very man who is doing everything in his power right now to transform his country into autocracy modelled after Vladimir Putin's Russia emerged as the victor at this week's special EU-Turkey summit in Brussels. This is bad, even alarming, news.

Because the European Union apparently sees Erdogan as a potential miracle solution to the refugee crisis, he will likely get almost everything he wants: billions of euros for refugee support, accelerated EU membership talks and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens who want to visit Europe. On top of that, he gets the EU's failure to criticize the president's undemocratic behavior.

A few days before the summit, Erdogan dealt another heavy blow to press freedom, as if wanting to show Europe he can get away with anything. He had the country's largest newspaper, Zaman, be placed under mandatory government administration as anti-terror police occupied the opposition publication's editorial offices. The same thing happened this week to the news agency Cihan.

Prior to that, Can Dündar, the editor in chief of the daily Cumhuriyet, which is critical of the government, was arrested. The country's constitutional court ultimately ordered his release, but the president made clear that he wouldn't accept the verdict. In the last 18 months, close to 2,000 people have come under investigation for "insulting the president" in Turkey. And now the government wants to suspend parliamentary immunity for lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish HDP party.

Neither Angela Merkel, nor EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini nor European Council President Donald Tusk has dared to explicitly criticize the Turkish president. Instead, they proffered only the mildest of condemnations. But when Europe tiptoes on eggshells like that, it jeopardizes its credibility. What right will it still have to criticize limits to the freedom of the press in countries like Hungary -- or in Putin's "managed democracy"?

Unsavory Deals

So-called realpolitik is often cited to justify these kinds of unsavory deals -- the idea that you sometimes have to do morally disagreeable things for the sake of a higher cause. But there are some real-world consequences. For Turkey, this means weakening an opposition that is resisting Erdogan's aspirations to omnipotence. The EU is now paving the way for the president to change his country's constitution and weaken Turkey's democratic institutions. Erdogan has also reignited the conflict with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The army, in its battle against Kurdish militants, has put entire cities in the southeast under curfew and left many homes in ruins. The president is destabilizing his own country and the broader region.

Europe intends to surrender itself to a volatile autocrat who soon may have additional demands. This is not what a sustainable solution looks like. Besides, no one even knows if the proposed refugee deal will work the way people are hoping. Will the threat of swift deportation to Turkey truly be enough to prevent refugees from crossing the Aegean Sea? Is it even possible for Europe to conduct mass deportations that violate the terms of the Geneva Convention on Refugees? Will the acceptance of Syrian refugees by European countries from Turkey ultimately work? And isn't it also possible that refugees will simply take the route via Libya and across the Mediterranean in the future?

The agreement with Turkey may provide temporary relief to EU leaders like Angela Merkel, who are under domestic political pressure to reduce the number of refugees. It is, however, degrading for Europe to come across as a desperate supplicant. This is purely the product of EU discord. The Europeans only have to rely on Turkey because they are unable to agree on solutions that they themselves could implement -- such as the distribution of refugees across Europe.

The fact is that the EU doesn't have many levers left with which to pressure Turkey. The EU was never truly serious about accepting Turkey as a member, and Erdogan today is no longer seriously seeking that either. For the Turkish president, the reopening of accession negotiations is mainly important because of the domestic prestige factor.

Despite all this, the EU still has one trump left in its hand: the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens it is now considering, which would be an enormous success for Erdogan domestically. It must be attached to strict conditions, including respect for human rights and freedom of the press. Such a victory cannot just be handed to Erdogan. A price should be demanded for it at the next summit this coming week. If the EU is to open its borders to Turkish citizens, then it also has to dare to criticize Erdogan and exercise all the influence that it still has.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Anglish 03/11/2016
You say the EU has to basically grovel to Turkey then say because the EU countries cannot agree on spreading the migrants around the EU. Surely the countries of the EU are furious with Merkel for never involving them in the decision to accept over a million migrants into Europe. She may think she alone runs the EU but Austria and the Eastern countries are never going to submit to her diktat. She must remember this is the EU of 28 states not the German European Empire however much she dominates (or did until last September) within Europe. All roads led to Berlin not Brussels last year but no longer. Hubris is destroying yet another politician in power far to long ( 11 years) just as it did with my hero Margaret Thatcher ( in power for 11 years ).
maartendebacker 03/11/2016
2. the end result of The Critical Theory
Strong nations would immediately put an end to this and guard their borders, which is the most urgent matter above so-called European principles(; the most important EU-principles of freedom of speech and equal rights have already been jeopardized by the Turkish approachment.) But European nations are far from strong, they are demoralized to the core for decades and decades of self-depreciative political thought.
amy.warren 03/12/2016
3. When will it end?
I just feel like this situation gets worse everytime I read an article. I do not understand why anyone ever had the idea to need to take in all these people to begin with. You really cant go this route of saying you have to help them because they are living in horrible conditions, or else you should start taking in all the people in S. Sudan as well, for just one example. Where does it end and what kind of conditions are they living in now even? I do not agree with the idea that you should support a horrible man doing horrible things to a group of people in order to "help or save" another group of people (makes not one tick of sense). I am still even unsure how he is meant to even fix this situation for the rest of the EU. Seems things keep being done to just dig the hole deeper and harder to ever get back out of.
Inglenda2 03/12/2016
4. All of a kind
If it was alright for Churchill to co-operate with a monster like Stalin, for Schroeder with Putin, why should there be an exception made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan? To find an honest national leader these days, you will need a crystal ball.
nsmith 03/12/2016
The problem with relying on Turkey to keep its end of the bargain, is that there's no guarantee it will keep up its end of the bargain without making more demands in return. The fact that Mr. Erdogan has revealed himself as an autocrat of the highest order should not only give the EU every cause for concern, but every reason to immediately deal with the refugee crisis on its own accord.
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