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How Erdoğan’s ruthless drive for more power is shaking a divided Europe

The ruthless drive by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s pugnacious president, to expand his already considerable executive powers knows no bounds. Even cows are not safe. At the height of last week’s furious row with the Netherlands, Turkey’s red-meat producers’ association said it was expelling 40 Holstein Friesian cattle. Dutch cows, like Dutch diplomats, were no longer welcome in Turkey.

If the political backdrop were not so deadly serious, the bovine ban might be funny. But Erdoğan’s rude push to take partisan campaigning in Turkey’s fraught 16 April referendum on expanded presidential powers to the doorsteps of western Europe’s four-million-strong Turkish diaspora is no laughing matter. It has sparked an all-out crisis in Turkey-Europe relations that had been threatening to erupt for years.

When the Dutch banned unsanctioned ministerial rallies and cracked down on Turkish demonstrators, Erdoğan denounced them as modern-day Nazis. When Germany, where 1.4 million ethnic Turks have a vote in Erdoğan’s referendum, took a similar stance, he accused Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, of Islamophobia and harbouring terrorists. Denmark, Austria and Switzerland, which also have sizeable Turkish minorities, have all been caught up in the furore.

This jagged, ugly confrontation should come as no surprise. It has long been simmering, in particular since elections in 2015 when Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) unexpectedly lost its parliamentary majority. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) made historic gains, winning seats for the first time – a result enthusiastically welcomed by EU countries.

In response, Erdoğan began a fierce crackdown on political and media opponents while deliberately abandoning the 2013 ceasefire with PKK Kurdish separatists. Renewed security-forces repression in the Kurdish-dominated south-east caused numerous casualties and wrought dreadful destruction in Kurdish cities. This violence continues, as the UN made plain in a damning report this month. It is cynically perpetuated by Erdoğan to bolster his claim that only he and the AKP can save Turkey from “terrorists” and foreign co-conspirators.

Last year’s failed Turkish army coup, provoked by Erdoğan’s autocratic behaviour and a series of devastating terror bombings, accelerated this process of internal polarisation in a country where polls suggest an almost exact 50-50 split for and against the president. Erdoğan blamed the coup on a US-backed conspiracy led by the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gülen. But he also lambasted Europe for being too slow to support him and too quick to criticise post-coup repression.

Erdoğan has persisted with his divisive, Trump-like “for us or against us” tactics in the run-up to the referendum, denouncing the HDP and other opposition parties as terrorist sympathisers, arresting their leaders and detaining and persecuting independent civil servants, media, academics, police and judges in their thousands.

Erdoğan’s tactics are as simple as they are crude. His demand for quasi-dictatorial powers rests on the claim that he, and he alone, is the saviour of the Turkish republic. Since 2003, when he first became prime minister, his brand of neo-Islamist nationalism has gradually become more extreme and exclusive. He plays on Turks’ historical fears of foreign meddling. He cynically brandishes the “religion card”, pitting Muslim Turkey against Christendom. And with the Obama administration gone, Europe and the EU have become his preferred whipping boy.

Turkey and the Netherlands clash over campaign access

Erdoğan taunted “Christian Europe” again last Thursday while campaigning in Sakarya, condemning the European Court of Justice’s ruling that allows companies to ban staff wearing “visible religious symbols” such as head scarves. “Where is the liberty of religion?” he demanded. “They have commenced a struggle between the cross and crescent … I am saying this clearly: Europe is heading towards the days just before the second world war.”

Erdoğan also mocked Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister who won last week’s general election, seeing off a challenge from the far-right Islamophobe, Geert Wilders. “Oh Rutte! You may have been first in the elections, but you have lost a friend like Turkey,” Erdoğan said. “Give it up. You have lost.” Erdoğan’s surrogates continue to indulge in similar diatribes. Europe was entering an era of religious warfare, said foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. “Now the election is over in the Netherlands … when you look at the many parties you see there is no difference between the social democrats and fascist [Geert] Wilders. All have the same mentality … Where are you taking Europe? You have begun to collapse, Europe … Holy wars will soon begin in Europe,” he said.

Rhetoric and schadenfreude aside, the causes of Turkish anger are deep-seated and not wholly unjustified. Erdoğan has repeatedly complained that Turkey’s longstanding EU membership bid, now widely viewed as dead in the water, was, in effect, humiliatingly blocked by France and Germany a decade ago. He now says Turkey does not need the EU anyway.

Erdoğan is incensed that visa-free travel for Turks in Europe has not materialised, despite promises made in a deal with Merkel in 2015 on halting Syrian refugee flows. On Friday, Turkey’s interior minister rejected a more limited readmission arrangement and challenged the EU to face the consequences of scrapping the refugee pact. “I’m telling you Europe, do you have that courage? If you want, we’ll send the 15,000 refugees to you that we don’t send each month and blow your mind,” Süleyman Soylu said.

Erdoğan’s grievances include European criticism of human rights abuses, his treatment of Kurds, and recent attacks on media freedoms, including the detention of a journalist working for the German newspaper, Die Welt. But it seems plain that, with next month’s referendum result expected to be close, Erdoğan is reaching indiscriminately for any ammunition he can find to boost his hardline nationalist-chauvinist-conspiracy narrative.

The view from the other side of the Europe-Turkey confrontation is unedifying, too. Traumatised by Brexit, shocked by the advent of Donald Trump, weakened by eurozone crises and alarmed by neo-populist forces that threaten the centrist establishment in coming elections in France and Germany, the European commission and principal EU members are poorly placed to resist the challenges presented by a tough, unscrupulous opponent such as Erdoğan.

For years, the Europeans condescended to or ignored Ankara in the complacent belief that Turkey, a developing country and Nato member with a secular, western outlook, needed the EU more than the other way around. Now the tables are turned. Despite a recent slump, Turkey is growing fast, economically and demographically. Secularism is in retreat. In strategic terms, Erdoğan is closer to Vladimir Putin than he is to Merkel (or Trump).

In Syria, Erdoğan is allied with the Russians and Iran and at odds with the US over its backing for Syria’s Kurds. When it comes to Islamic State, and fighting jihadi terrorism in general, Erdoğan has proved unreliable, to put it kindly. Meanwhile, his race and religion-based messages invite a response in kind from Europe’s hard-right extremists and demagogues, for whom such divisions are grist to the mill.

Responding to Erdoğan and his ministers last week, Merkel and François Hollande, the French president, said their insults were unacceptable and must cease. But their position is shaky. Given their neediness over refugees and counter-terrorism, they have few options by way of retaliation. In terms of the overall relationship, Europe has lost the initiative and the upper hand it took for granted for so long. As Erdoğan’s allies say, who now is “the sick man of Europe”?

Europe must stop lecturing Turkey, foreign minister Çavuşoğlu crowed last week, for one simple reason: “It is Turkey that commands.” Such claims overstate the case. But there is no denying the forces of xenophobic, anti-democratic, intolerant ultra-nationalism, symbolised by Erdoğan, are once again at the gates of Europe – and, notwithstanding the Dutch election result, nobody has yet produced a convincing riposte.


On 16 April, Turks will be asked to vote on a plan that would transform a parliamentary system in the country to an executive presidency. A Yes vote would give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers and allow him to govern as head of state until 2029. Under the changes, a president would be given powers to appoint ministers, choose most top judges and enact certain laws by decree. The president could also announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament.

Erdoğan, right, has staked everything on winning the referendum. His supporters say that, when Turkey is at increased risk of terrorist attacks, the new system will streamline decision-making and give greater stability. Opponents fear it will usher in an era of authoritarian one-man rule when judicial independence and press freedom have already been curtailed.

Source: The Guardian

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