The troubled relations between Turkey and the European Union clearly demonstrate the futility of Brussels’ attempts to build a working model of multiculturalism in Europe. The main thing here is the objective impossibility of combining two mutually exclusive aims: getting the refugee crisis under control, including by working with Muslims, chiefly the many Turkish communities in EU countries, while at the same time opposing the policies of the current Turkish government headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The forthcoming Turkish constitutional referendum set to take place in April, which will increase the president’s powers even more, is currently being regarded by European leaders as a challenge almost comparable in importance to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. According to the information available, EU leaders, having consulted with the leading European countries, primarily Germany, have already taken the fundamental decision not to recognise the results of the Turkish referendum, which, in turn, will make it possible to reject President Erdoğan’s legitimacy.
Europe’s hostility towards Erdoğan can be attributed to a number of factors:
1. The need to demonstrate toughness on the refugee issue during the pre-election campaigns in France, Germany and other countries, where the ruling classes are trying to re-take the initiative and mobilise support from the right-wing and extreme right-wing segments of the domestic political spectrum.
2. The impossibility of departing from the canons of democracy and the pro-democracy rhetoric. With regard to Turkey, this means continuing to provide support to the anti-government forces that first asserted themselves during the 2013 protests in Istanbul.
3. The desire to prevent Turkey from strengthening relations with Russia both in the economic sphere (the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project, the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant) and in the military and political ones (Syria, Iraq).
4. An attempt to offer Ankara a game with raised stakes as part of a solution to the refugee problem (new negotiations on which are inevitable anyway). During further bargaining with Erdoğan, it will allow the EU to withdraw previously-agreed commitments to give Turkey a visa-free regime and multi-billion-dollar financial aid.
Ankara does not believe that the current crisis in relations with the European Union is situational or has arisen spontaneously. «Europe is carrying out a planned political operation initiated by Germany», writes the Turkish newspaper Vatan. According to the newspaper, European leaders are trying to obtain a negative outcome in the referendum on 16 April and so deliver a blow to Erdoğan’s administration. There is an error in the EU’s thinking, however: the crisis «has fuelled and will inevitably continue to fuel nationalist sentiment, prompting people to vote ‘yes’ in the Turkish referendum», Vatan concludes.
The outcome of the Turkish referendum looks uncertain at present, but this is where the vote of Turkish communities in EU member countries could unexpectedly play a decisive role. The latest polls indicate that the numbers for and against changing the Turkish constitution to create a presidential system are roughly the same. The polls do not shed any light on the balance of power, either. At the beginning of March, for example, Turkey’s two main polling agencies announced conflicting results. According to AKAM, 42.4% of voters who have already made their choice intend to vote in favour of constitutional reform and 57.6% intend to vote against. Yet the ORC polling company paints a completely different picture: 57.2% are in favour of Erdoğan’s bill and 42.8% are against.
According to the most conservative estimates, more than 5.5 million Turks currently live outside of Turkey, with 1.4 million of these living in Germany and eligible to vote in the forthcoming referendum. There is now a struggle going on between Berlin and Ankara for their votes.
At the same time, however, the EU can only go so far in aggravating tensions with Turkey, since there is an objective need to reach new refugee and migrant agreements with Ankara that is forcing compromises.
Turkey is also still one of the EU’s main trade and economic partners. The Netherlands, for example, is the largest investor in Turkey, surpassing even the US.
There is not complete solidarity among EU members on the ‘Turkish issue’ and the row is not dying down. While Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark put up a united front against Turks in their countries organising protests in support of the Turkish referendum, France and Sweden took a more reserved, even a neutral, stance, imposing additional security measures at such meetings and rallies. Having read the situation well, Ankara intends to use it to its advantage. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already referred to the European Union’s calls for restraint as «pointless». And this should be taken to mean that Erdoğan is ready for confrontation.