Motives behind Turkey’s increasingly divisive EU rhetoric

Discontent has clouded relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU) in recent times, but over the past few weeks, it has escalated to another level, with aggressive and divisive language emanating from Turkey.

Discontent has clouded relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU) in recent times, but over the past few weeks, it has escalated to another level, with aggressive and divisive language emanating from Turkey.

Turkey has witnessed a grave political fallout with the Netherlands and Germany over their refusal to allow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials to hold rallies in respective countries to support the April 16th referendum in Turkey, where voters decide on a proposed presidential system that would give Recep Tayyip Erdogan unprecedented new executive powers.

Netherlands and Germany cited concerns that such political rallies would spark unrest among their significant Turkish populations. Turkish anger was stoked further with pro-Kurdish protests held in Switzerland and Germany.

For Erdogan, the estimated 2.5 million citizens of Turkish origin with a vote act as vital swing votes.

Erdogan has made no secret he has been planning for such a presidential system since his days as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990’s. And with the outcome of the vote far from certain, Erdogan must not only lure the swing voters to his cause but ensure his support base vote for nothing other than a yes.

The strong rhetoric that followed the fallout with Netherlands and Germany go a long way explaining Erdogan’s desire to mobilize the nationalist voter base.

The issue has transformed into a matter of national pride, class and even religion, seemingly to ferment an emotional response in the Diaspora and at home.

Such divisive euphoria could do irreparable damage to Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU, with accession talks long-stalled; however, the ‘us versus them’ mentality plays into the hands of Erdogan, and the upcoming referendum takes a much greater precedence than the already fading dream of joining the EU.

Erdogan claimed that “the spirit of Fascism is running wild on the streets of Europe,” drawing parallels with Angela Merkel’s government and Nazism of the past on a number of occasions, and accusing the Netherlands of being “Nazi remnants” and a “banana republic.”

Erdogan underlined a struggle between the cross and the crescent, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, also accusing the EU of fascist sentiments, gravely warned, “You have begun to collapse Europe. You are dragging Europe into the abyss. Holy wars will soon begin in Europe.”

On the theme of a religious injustice, Erdogan implored Muslims in Europe to "make not three, but five children. Because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you".

With motivations to blur the political and religious lines, opponents of constitutional amendments have even been referred to as “opponents of Islam” by a prominent Turkish cleric.

Leaders of Netherland and Germany have been irritated by the harsh rhetoric but have mostly kept to a diplomatic tone while stressing the Nazi comparisons must stop.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, expressed he was “stunned” over Erdogan’s rhetoric. Schaeuble warned, "In a short time, it willfully destroys the integration that has grown over the years in Germany. The repair of the damage will take years."

Since last year, fallouts between the EU and Turkey quickly resulted in threats to dismantle the migrant deal signed in March 2016 after lengthy negotiations.

The migrant crisis, largely stabilized after the deal, remains a nightmare scenario for Europe, and Ankara is not shy to remind Europe of the sway it holds on this matter.

Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, warned European leaders, “If you want, we could open the way for 15,000 refugees that we don’t send each month and blow the mind.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan warned that “no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets” if they assumed the same course.

Nationalist sentiment is a card that Erdogan is all too aware of to court voters. In the same way, the resumption of the war against the PKK was instrumental in swaying nationalist voters at the snap elections in 2015, and curbing voters from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

The large-scale crackdown on the opposition in the aftermath of the failed coup of July 2016 may have resulted in EU criticism, but the surge in nationalism has transformed the Turkish landscape.

In reality, EU membership, however unlikely, would be a hindrance to Erdogan and the AKP as a presidential system gives them a far greater advantage.

All things considered, Erdogan has placed his eggs on winning the referendum. If Erdogan loses, this will forever stain his legacy and the political pillars he has erected.


Editing by Delovan Barwari