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The limits of the crisis between Turkey and Europe

Image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) on 17 February 2017 [Michele Tantussi - Anadolu Agency]
Image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) on 17 February 2017 [Michele Tantussi - Anadolu Agency]

As a new crisis rears its head between Ankara and Europe, the usual inflammatory vocabulary is exchanged between the two sides, adding further to the doubts of whether Turkey would be accepted into the European family.

The new tension occurred after the Turkish authorities detained a German-Turkish journalist in February.

The build-up and circumstances of the crisis

It seems that Ankara is harbouring resentment towards its European partners who seemed to have abandoned Erdogan during the 15 July coup attempt. The continent’s capitals were silent during the event that threatened the democracy being crushed under tanks.

After that the European media appeared to articulate significant resentement toward the Turkish president. The media used derogatory and offensive language and focusing on Turkey’s state of emergency while disregarding the gravity of the coup.

Some European countries are also disgruntled by the Turkish communities’ interactions with the political scene in their homeland and apparent lack of integration.

Criticism was widespread, exemplified by Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, who criticised Erdogan and expressed his displeasure at the protests in Vienna against the coup attempt. He even said, “Whoever wants to be involved in Turkish domestic politics, they are free to leave our country.”

Read: Turkey summons German ambassador after minister blocked from speaking

It was also in Austria that the government tried to deny foreign funding for mosques and Islamic organisations by means of the controversial new “Islam Law”. This fundamentally affects the official Turkish role as dozens of imams, mosques, and organisations are funded by Ankara.

Last February, a number of employees working in German and Austrian organisations linked to the managing of Turkish religious affairs were accused of “spying” on Turkish citizens.

Ankara’s relationship with the Turkish communities is a sensitive issue in European countries, particularly in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. It is ironic that the series of criticisms directed at Ankara regarding its violation of the rights of journalists and their safety does not align in principle with the prohibition of Turkish popular events in Germany and other countries as a violation of freedom of expression and congregation, despite the fact that the justifications for such steps have been carefully woven under the pretext of “a threat to national security”.

Sensitivity and tense atmosphere

The current escalated situation has revealed, once again, the extreme sensitivity surrounding the Turkish/European relations to the point that pushed Erdogan to extreme language. His reference to Germany’s Nazi past was a shocking move for Berlin and this certainly harms relations between them.

Merkel’s government does not seem interested in worsening the crisis, despite its several criticisms of Ankara. However, the government is under great pressure from the green and left-wing parties, as well as a wave of action in the German streets to address the case of Deniz Yucel, the journalist detained in Turkey who is a dual German-Turkish national (Legally, this makes him Turkish in Turkey and German in Germany).

The growing internal pressure on the German government regarding Deniz’s case is pushing Berlin to take concrete steps in order to force the Turks to release him. When the pressure comes from prominent media platforms, such as Germany’s right-wing newspaper Die Welt, for which Yucel works, then such an escalation will not be a mere shout into the wind.

Read: Turkey accuses Germany of providing ‘shelter’ to its enemies

The new crisis comes in a context that is sensitive to Ankara, as there are those in Europe who are testing its patience through behaviour seen as provocative by Turkey. The Turkish leadership responds only through escalation. It is likely that such escalation serves Erdogan’s leadership internally.

Simerlalrly escalation is driven by german parties in the context of their election. Particularly the left-wing, green, and far right-wing parties, which are clearly influenced by Kurdish forces, the Gulen Movement, and other Turkish left-wing and liberal parities.

As for the conservative German forces in the centre right, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, they rule out following the calls for isolation and continue to commit to the military, strategic, and economic cooperation with Ankara, its NATO partner, despite its implicit reservations towards Turkey joining the European family.

Deeper than the incident

The Turkish/European tensions have exposed their main issue, which is the Europeans’ hidden desire not to welcome Turkey into the EU.

There is very little frankness in the growing escalation against Turkey, and this includes Europe initiated a complication in the negotiations regarding Turkey joining the EU. The language of superiority used towards Turkey is having the opposite effect even on the reforms that were motivated by hopes of joining the EU.

Read: Germany, Turkey aim to improve ties

It is also clear that the Turkish leadership is no longer eager to please the Europeans and does not hesitate to escalate matters during the elections seasons if need be, and this is an expression of Ankara’s indifference to the dream of membership that seems to have fizzled.

There is no reason to be optimistic about such membership with the rise of the far-right in the continent, especially after the centre right in European capitals, beginning from the middle of the last decade, caused an undermining of the hopes to absorb Turkey, despite its active reforms under Erdogan.

As for the issue of freedom of expression and journalism, it is especially important here because it is a symbol of Europe’s moral limits. For  Europeans the situation in Turkey regarding repression of journalists is cause enough to ban it from EU membership.

Ankara, of course, has its own perspective which notes that the issue of freedom of the press did not hindered the German/Egyptian rapprochement when it was convienent to the Europeans.

Just a one-off?

The current crisis has logical limits. Ankara is aware of Europe’s need for stability on a range of issues where Turkey is imporant, for example the refugee issue and other strategic and security issues, not to mention the mutual economic and business interests between the two sides, including energy pipelines. Closing the European doors in the face of Ankara is a big risk for Europe that it does not want.

Turkey is crucial to Europe and this makes the current escalation of the situation in unexpected inconvienence. The theory of a one-off slip up seems likely given the fact that the deterioration of German/Turkish relations came weeks after Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Ankara, during which she assumedly reduced the chasm between the two sides.

Europe has no interest in sharp escalation with Turkey, especially during this pressuring time in which the Europeans are facing difficult tests with their American ally and Russian neighbour, in addition to internal challenges after the Brexit decision.

Yet, it is unlikely that the crisis with Ankara will deescalate until the Turkish referendum on the presidential system is over.

Ankara remains in need of protecting its partnership with Europe, even if it remains outside the European club, which is unsure of the future of its unity.

As for Europe, there is no use for chronic tension with Turkey that will have consequences in a world where alliance maps move quickly. Moreover, it would not be wise for the European interest to provoke the Turkish populations that are heavily concentrated in large communities in West Europe or to provoke the Turkish voters during the heated popular referendum.

Translated from Al Jazeera, 7 March 2017

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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