The fury of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president, with EU member states appears to know no bounds. Not content with accusing Germany and then the Netherlands of “Nazi-style” behaviour in preventing his government ministers from addressing political rallies on their territory, he now claims the “rotten” Dutch perpetrated the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
Assorted European politicians have demanded that accession talks with Turkey be abandoned. If any proof were needed that Brexiters’ claims of looming Turkish EU membership were a fantasy, the past few days have provided it.
But neither side is prepared to make the first move to scrap the process. They are locked in a poisonous relationship which neither can afford to abandon, and yet neither seems ready to heal. Turkey is not going to join the EU in the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the UK goes ahead with Brexit, Turkey will have lost its best ally in Brussels. In the current climate, Turkish membership would be vetoed by most of the rest.
Erdogan’s angry accusations against the EU are almost entirely directed at his domestic Turkish audience, whose support he is seeking to win for a referendum next month on hugely increasing the powers of the president. The outcome of the vote is very finely balanced, and he needs to win over hardline Turkish nationalists to get a majority.
The Turkish president knew that dispatching his ministers to address rallies in the Netherlands less than a week before the Dutch election would be acutely sensitive for Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. He is fighting a rearguard action to keep Geert Wilders’ anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Freedom party at bay.
The timing was almost certainly determined by the publication last week of the report of the Venice Commission for the Council of Europe, condemning the proposed Turkish constitutional changes. The row with the Germans and Dutch was a perfect distraction.
In the event, the spat has helped both Erdogan and Rutte. The Dutch prime minister’s ratings improved sharply thanks to his hard line in banning the Turkish rallies. Back in Turkey, the Venice Commission’s critical report got little attention.
The danger, however, is that the harsh words will endanger the fundamental relationship. Berlin and Brussels fear that Erdogan might be tempted to abandon the deal he negotiated with German chancellor Angela Merkel to stop the flood of Syrian and other refugees crossing the Aegean to Greece. In Turkey, they worry that vital trade and investment ties will be harmed.
Omer Celik, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, has rushed to reassure investors that their interests will not be touched. Given that the Dutch are the biggest foreign investors in Turkey – worth some $22 billion, or 16% of the total – that is relevant.
As for the deal to hold back some 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, in exchange for around €3 billion in EU subsidies, it is the ace in Erdogan’s hand. If it were suddenly suspended in the summer, it would be a huge blow to the prospects for Merkel’s re-election in September.
For the UK government’s Brexit negotiations, it means that yet another urgent EU crisis has thrust itself to the top of the Brussels agenda, just as Theresa May is planning to table her withdrawal demand. The chances of any serious negotiations getting under way in 2017, with so many crises and new governments slowly emerging in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy, are slim.
Edited by Hugo Dixon