In terms of threats to peace and stability on the continent, Europe’s leaders have plenty to worry about. The refugee/migrant crisis, terrorism, and the rise of far-right populist movements have all received extensive international attention over the last few years. However, one hopes European leaders are clear-eyed about another potential source of strife - the Turkish government’s increasingly bold attempts to project power in Europe.
Turkey is a parliamentary republic, but since being elected president in 2014, its head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated power through unabashedly authoritarian means. Erdogan previously served as Turkey’s Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, having founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. Though the Turkish constitution requires the president to remain politically neutral, Erdogan has made no secret of his disdain for that obligation.The country is believed to be leading the world in the number of imprisoned journalists. Members of the political opposition are often arrested and harassed on the flimsiest of grounds. Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the pluralistic People’s Development Party (HDP), is currently in jail on accusations that he participated in “terrorist propaganda”. The failed coup attempt in July of last year has given the AKP government an excuse to intensify its repression.
Apart from eroding Turkey’s democracy at an alarming pace, Erdogan has also waded into the Syrian Civil War, and renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that claims to fight for the rights of the Kurdish minority in Turkey. Since last year, however, it has become clear that Erdogan’s ambitions are not limited to becoming the biggest bully in the Middle East. Asserting power over Europe appears to be high on Erdogan’s agenda.
A signal of his intent came in April 2016, when the Turkish president attempted to have German comedian Jan Boehmermann prosecuted for composing an “offensive” poem while in Germany. At the time, German restrictions on the freedom of speech nominally included a law prohibiting insult to foreign heads of state and representatives, which dated back to 1871. However, for a foreign leader to actually demand enforcement of the law in the twenty-first century was utterly unprecedented. The episode came a little over a year after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, where a dozen French journalists were gunned down for their magazine’s irreverent cartoons. German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed the prosecution of Boehmermann to go ahead. Thankfully, the case was dropped by prosecutors last October, and Germany rid itself of the outdated law in January.
Soon after the start of the Boehmermann affair, the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam sent an email to Turkish groups in the Netherlands, asking for the names of people who had insulted Erdogan (among other things) to be reported. Although the consulate later clarified that they had only meant to inquire about hateful speech against Turks, the Dutch authorities were rattled, seeing it as a brazen attempt by Ankara to wield influence on Dutch soil.
Following these aggressive diplomatic maneuvers, Turkey’s relations with Russia improved dramatically. This follows a low point in diplomatic relations caused by Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet near the Syria-Turkey border in November 2015. Erdogan was reported to have apologized for the event. In exchange, the Kremlin lifted a retaliatory ban on tourists visiting Turkey. Russian state media, which had run furious denunciations of Turkey and Erdogan for months following the downing of the jet, gradually shifted to a more pro-Ankara line.
This March, Turkey’s relations with Europe worsened considerably. Erdogan had called for a referendum in mid-April for a proposal to abolish the office of the prime minister and give the president sweeping new powers. In spite of widespread intimidation against the AKP’s opponents, opinion polls showed that a victory for the president was far from guaranteed. The government was thus keen on mobilizing its supporters within the Turkish diaspora, heavily concentrated in Germany and the Netherlands.
The first hint of a spillover into Europe came when Erdogan launched an over-the-top attack after two German towns cancelled rallies in support of his ‘Yes’ campaign, citing security concerns. In a move surely designed to antagonize Germany, Erdogan compared the cancellations to actions of the Nazis. Soon, it was the turn of the Netherlands to be embroiled in a bitter dispute. Days before the Dutch parliamentary elections, Ankara threatened to impose sanctions in response to Dutch displeasure over a request for the Turkish foreign minister to be allowed to campaign. Citing the threat of sanctions as unacceptable, the Dutch government withdrew landing permission for the Turkish minister. The situation escalated when Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, Turkey’s Minister for Family and Social Policies, tried to enter Rotterdam from Germany despite having been declared persona non grata. The Dutch government, perhaps keen on appearing strong before the election, deported Kaya back to Germany.
This prompted a now-familiar Erdogan tantrum. His insults of choice for the Dutch were “fascists” and “Nazi remnants”. His rants get only a passing mention in the American media, for obvious reasons, but they are given top billing in Russia Today. A few days later, Erdogan claimed that Europeans were capable of bringing back gas chambers, and the Turkish interior minister threatened to “blow Europe’s mind” by waving through thousands of refugees into the continent.
That last threat is not an empty one. Turkey’s main source of leverage over Europe is the deal that the EU desperately struck in 2016, hoping to stem the flow of migrants into Greece. While the United States and Canada can process refugee applications without having to handle a crisis at their borders, Europe’s proximity to the Middle East has meant that it is struggling to cope with waves of people arriving in the Greek islands and claiming refugee status. The EU tried to sort out this problem by arranging for such migrants to be deported to Turkey, taking Syrians from refugee camps within Turkey in exchange.
The United States has mostly stayed out of these disputes and does not look likely to get involved in the near future. But that might have been different if Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn were still the national security adviser to President Donald Trump. Flynn, after resigning over misrepresentations of his conversation with the Russian ambassador, retroactively registered as a foreign agent for Turkey. That’s right - the former national security adviser had been in the pay of the Turkish government (through a shell company), a scandal which has flown under the radar only because of the intrigue surrounding Trump’s ties to Russia. Last November, Flynn penned an article in The Hill purporting to make a disinterested case for the extradition of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is seen by Erdogan as a threat to his power.
Since the stakes are keeping a lid on the migrant crisis and appeasing a NATO member, Europe may still see merit in trying to maintain a working relationship with Erdogan. However, if European leaders capitulate to unreasonable demands in the manner of Angela Merkel, Erdogan will only be emboldened. Far-right movements in Europe will also gain a powerful talking point, being able to accuse the mainstream of lacking spine. American leadership might have shown the way in previous eras, but there is little indication that the Trump White House has anything meaningful to offer on this front.
(Note: That source is a tweet, which may not appear too authoritative, but Abdullah Bozkurt is a journalist who had to flee Turkey last year. He used to be the editor of Today’s Zaman, a newspaper which was taken over by the state. The Wikipedia entry for Today’s Zaman is full of dead links - a chilling testament to the ruthless censorship of the Turkish government.)
Correction: A previous version of this posting erroneously said the upcoming Turkish referendum on expanding executive powers was in May. The actual date is 4/16/2017.