This past Sunday, March 5th 2017, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan made the extraordinary proclamation that recent actions undertaken by the German government were “no different than the Nazi ones of the past.” Mr. Erdogan was referring not to some new German law or inflammatory language from a German political party, but rather to the decision taken by German authorities last week to cancel 3 rallies in the German cities of Gaggenau, Cologne, and Frechen. The rallies, which were to be attended by various ministers of the Turkish government, were organized to help drum up support for a “yes” vote on an upcoming April 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey that would grant Mr. Erdogan sweeping new powers.
The referendum proposes 18 changes to the Turkish Constitution. A yes vote would abolish the office of the Prime Minister, move Turkey away from a parliamentary system of government and introduce an executive presidency, raise the number of seats in Parliament, and give the President more control over the judiciary. There are millions of Turks abroad eligible to vote in the referendum, with around 1.5 million of them living in Germany.
Various reasons were given for the cancellations. Officials in Cologne stated that they had been misled about the purpose of the rallies, while those in Gaggenau stated that the location for which the rally was planned had insufficient space for the number of people slated to attend. The reason behind the cancellation mattered not to Erdogan, who accused the Germans of “fascist action” and stated that the German government had no relation to democracy. The comparison drew ire and outrage from German government officials, media organizations, and private citizens.
The recent spat over the cancellation of the pro-Erdogan rallies in Germany comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained relations between the two NATO allies. Although the countries are linked by the NATO military alliance and are major trading partners, relations have soured over the past several years, and especially since the start of the European migrant crisis in 2015. After it became increasingly clear that the European nations would not be able to handle the massive influx of refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants who began arriving via various routes in the summer of 2015, the European Union, and especially Germany, the top destination for most migrants, sought a way to stem the tide.
The result was a deal struck between the European Union and Turkey that was aimed at stopping the unfiltered flow of refugees and economic migrants into Europe. The deal included the following: Turkey would receive 6 billion euros, as well as re-ignited talks on its efforts to join the EU. Turkey also received a promise of upcoming visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe. In return, Turkey would beef up patrols of the main migrant crossing between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea, and all migrants intercepted would be sent back to Turkey, where they would remain. The deal specifically targeted Syrians—for every Syrian forced to return to Turkey or deported from Europe, one would be legally admitted into the European Union. The deal did not make specific allowances for other Middle Eastern or Asian countries experiencing ongoing conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
The deal almost immediately ran into trouble. Human rights groups in Europe and around the world, including the UN refugee agency UNHCR and Amnesty International, decried the fact that migrants and refugees would be returned to Turkey, a nation with a spotty record on human rights. These same groups also noted that Turkey had been reported to be returning Syrians to active conflict zones in Syria, which would be a violation of international law. On the other side, Turkey began complaining in late 2016 of delays in the implementation of visa-free travel for Turks to Europe, which the EU insisted were conditional upon the implementation of several “benchmarks” in Turkey, including changes in laws to allow for fairer trials and freedom of expression.
These events occurred as Turkey’s record on human rights has deteriorated and Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies increased, especially since the failed military coup of July 2016, although Erdogan had been presenting himself more and more as a strongman for years prior to the coup attempt. In the wake of the coup, the Turkish government has purged or detained thousands of soldiers, journalists, teachers, police officers, judges, civil servants, and others who have been accused of aiding the coup plotters. The European Union, the United States, and others have accused or suspected the Erdogan government of using the failed coup as an attempt to crack down on the opposition within Turkey. The changes proposed to the Turkish Constitution in the upcoming April referendum are being justified by Erdogan as necessary to combat Kurdish rebels and ISIS, but are seen by many in the Turkish opposition and around the world as a way to extend Erdogan’s power over Turkey indefinitely.
What has resulted is that the European Union, and especially Germany, are now relying on an increasingly authoritarian leader of a country with an increasingly ugly human rights record to enforce a morally dubious deal that is preventing millions of people from flowing into Europe unfettered. The Germans and the EU have found themselves in the unenviable position of needing to both placate Erdogan so that the migrant deal can remain in place, while also exert pressure on him in an attempt to reduce the increasing number of human rights abuses in Turkey, which now include the February 2017 arrest of Deniz Yücel, a Turkish-German journalist for a prominent German newspaper. Yücel was detained on February 14th following his reporting on emails from a leftist hacker which were apparently obtained from the private account of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister and the son-in-law of Erdogan.
Almost no one on either side is happy with the current situation, and any further deterioration of relations between Germany and Turkey has the potential to destabilize the European Union and Turkey as a whole. The Europeans are relying on Erdogan and the Turks to keep the refugees from overrunning European external borders and causing scenes similar to the ones from late in the summer of 2015, where thousands of migrants streamed through Greece, Macedonia, the Balkans, Hungary, and Austria every day on their way to Germany. Too much pressure or the wrong words from a European leader could likely cause Erdogan to renege on his end of the migrant deal, especially seeing as he is increasingly frustrated with the Europeans for what he sees as stonewalling on their end in regards to the visa-free travel deal. This travel, as mentioned, hinges on improvements in the human rights situation in Turkey, which is deteriorating, rather than improving, as the Turkish government continues to detain large numbers of people in the wake of the coup. Turkey, for its part, still relies heavily on trade with the Europeans—the EU is the number one import and export partner for Turkey, and Turkish exports to the EU were worth over $70 billion euros in 2016 . A reneging on the migrant deal could strain economic ties between the two and cause the European Union to reconsider Turkey’s application to join the bloc, although the Erdogan government has appeared increasingly less interested in EU membership in recent years.
Germany and the EU are likely loathe to be seen as endorsing Erdogan’s referendum by allowing rallies for its passage to be held in European cities, but at the same time must be careful not to push Erdogan too far, which would result in the cancellation of the migrant deal which has allowed the refugee situation in Europe to stabilize for the time being. Lurking in the background of all this is Russia. Ties between Russia and Turkey have warmed in recent years, despite the latter’s NATO membership, and Putin would likely love to drive a wedge into a North Atlantic alliance already weakened by the election of the Eurosceptic American President Donald Trump. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European leaders must tread carefully in the coming months, or they risk further destabilization of an already weakened European bloc.