Turkey is an important tourist destination for a large number of Irish tourists, and indeed thousands own property in Turkish coastal resorts. However, something profound is happening on Europe’s South-Eastern frontier. In geo-political terms it’s a tectonic shift. Turkey is drifting away from Europe and the West to an as-yet-unknown destination.
A few years ago, Turkey was an accession state, that is to say it was in the queue to join the EU. It was also a key member of the NATO military alliance and seen as a reliable partner in regional security. All the more staggering is that at the moment there are no travel visas being issued for US citizens travelling to Turkey or Turkish citizens travelling to the US.
This week, Turkish Airlines was forced to offer refunds to passengers hoping to travel to the United States. Although Trump still trumpets (to anyone still listening) that his relationship with the Turkish president is a close friendship, the reality is very different. Turkey has, over the last year, berated Washington for refusing to hand over the Turkish exile Fethullah Gülen, whom they accuse of involvement in last year’s coup attempt. Last week, the Turkish government ratchetted up the rhetoric still further with Erdogan declaring that he did not regard the outgoing US ambassador John Bass as a legitimate envoy. Moreover, other Turkish officials have suggested that the US consulate has been infiltrated by spies. The current wave of repression has seen the arrest of 10 US citizens and a number of Europeans. The suspicion in Western capitals is that these detainees may be used as bargaining counters in the future.
It is difficult to see how other members of NATO could see Turkey as a genuine ally and inconceivable that Article 5, the collective defence clause, could be triggered in the event that Turkey requested assistance. Its former friends are running out of patience and, whereas once there were divisions in the EU over Turkey eventually joining the EU, there is now a great deal more consensus that Turkey is not a viable candidate. Indeed, one increasingly gets the sense in Europe that our shared values are becoming more important in the face of disruptive and hostile forces.
Putin’s desire to destabilise the European Union is a long-standing policy and Turkey now seems to have adopted a similar position. Recent spats with both the German and the Dutch political establishments around Ankara’s desire to stir up the Turkish diaspora point to an essentially broken relationship. This year, Erdogan has accused both the Dutch and German government of having Nazi characteristics. The willingness to break this type of taboo is normally the preserve of English football hooligans and marks a serious deterioration of relations. The hostility towards the EU from the East throws our increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Washington into sharp relief. The Erdogan phenomenon is just part of the picture. The world is getting more dangerous and proving to be a more hostile environment for the EU.
To return to our domestic politics for a moment, it is high time the grotesque joke that is Irish neutrality needs to be re-examined. It reminds me of the politics of the abortion debate: women’s reproductive rights and defence of our sovereignty are both someone else’s problem.
Turkey’s shift to an aggressive authoritarianism captures the zeitgeist of resurgent nationalism as a key driver of public policy. It’s a view of the world where geopolitics and exceptionalism combine in a highly combustible mix. Some of the language emanating from Turkey 2017 is telling; it is marked by a desire to inform the world (and themselves) that they are a people to be reckoned with. Binali Yildirim, the prime minister, defending the arrest of a Turkish employee of the American embassy asked rhetorically, “Does the fact that he who committed a crime or is accused of a crime is [a member] of an American mission give him any privileges…? Does that mean we have to seek the permission of the [US] gentlemen?”
Turks are apparently fed up of taking instructions from foreign embassies and are making a point of striking out on their own. This has put them at odds with the US and their regional allies. The dynamic between Turkey and Israel appears to be changing: relations had been warm but over the last couple of years have cooled dramatically. Diplomatic ties with the Gulf States are also under pressure due to Ankara’s close ties with Qatar.
The Kurdish question remains a key driver of Turkish foreign policy. Attempts at some sort of rapprochement have been abandoned in favour of a much more aggressive policy. This has put the Turkish government on a collision course with Washington and it has brought its armed forces into direct conflict with US-supported Kurdish forces in Northern Syria.
Clearly, political risk is on the rise and this is reflected in the extreme volatility exhibited by the Turkish lira. Despite this, the stock market has, more recently, been resilient. Tourist numbers are under pressure with the number of German visitors falling sharply but domestic demand has helped to ease the pain. That said, as is the case with Brexit and Trump, this Turkish leadership appears willing to pay an economic price to regain a particular place in the world.
Those paying the biggest price for this lurch to authoritarianism are the tens of thousands that are now in prison (including many journalists), as well as the 100,000 civil servants who have been dismissed from their jobs and fear the knock on the door. Civil society and human rights are under attack in Turkey. The situation poses a tricky dilemma for the EU: do they let Turkey drift further away from Europe? The fact that the recent referendum on constitutional reform was only won by Erdogan’s AKP on a very tight margin, even with the help of a repressive State apparatus, demonstrates that progressive forces still enjoy support. They deserve our backing and a reorientation of funds: the resources designed to help with
Turkey’s accession to the EU should be redirected to strengthen human rights and civil society. As for the Irish tourist having good craic in Turkey – it doesn’t seem quite right.