Leiden, a.d. III Non. Apr. MMDCCLXIX A.U.C.,
Yesterday Chancellor Merkel decided to let public prosecutors prosecute the German comedian Böhmermann for this rather juvenile poem, at the request of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKA The Mustache, AKA Sultan Erdogan. The poem discusses how Erdogan bombs Kurds, locks up journalists, shuts down free speech, and worst of all, fucks goats. Erdogan thinks this is slander, although seeing the first three are true, his exaggerated reaction to this poem makes me wonder how much truth there is in the last claim…
Obviously the poem is very juvenile, and calling someone a goatfucker is of course very rude. Having said that, I think the poem draws our attention to a very serious issue Western countries face right now: how to deal with Erdogan and Turkey. On the one hand Turkey is a NATO member, meaning NATO countries would need to defend Turkey in case it is attacked. Moreover, officially it is an aspiring EU member. In other words, trying to incorporate Turkey into ‘the West’ has been standard policy for a long time. On the other hand, Erdogan does not behave as a leader worthy of leading a NATO member and aspiring EU member. Freedom of press has been deteriorating for years in Turkey, he is pushing an Islamic agenda, something which he himself clearly opposes to freedom and democracy, and Turkey has been complicit in the rise of ISIS. What is the added benefit of having such an ally?
In a very narrow sense Europe needs Turkey to stem the migrant flows. The European Commission, with the backing of European national leaders, has made a deal with Turkey which should stem the influx of migrants coming through Turkey. Part of this deal was a reopening on Turkish EU accession talks, a 3 billion euro transfer to the Turkish budget (read Erdogan’s Swiss bank account), in exchange for Turkey not ‘flooding Europe with refugees’, something Erdogan threatened with. While the deal itself may not be very problematic, it is the way that Erdogan has used the refugee crisis as leverage over the EU that makes me wonder how much of an ally Turkey really is. Openly threatening your allies to get something from them is not a very civilized or loyal thing to do. So the EU needs Turkey, but whether this episode has made Europeans like Turkey more is questionable.
Another potential reason to keep Turkey as an ally is that it might be better to have Turkey inside NATO than outside NATO. This could give the West a stronger relation with Turkey, so also more leverage over Erdogan. However, in the last decade Turkish relations with Israel have soured, to stress Erdogan’s Islamic credentials, while Turkish economic relations with Iran have blossomed, leading Turkey to step out of line with the West on the nuclear issue. These relations with Iran only deteriorated after Turkey started backing Syrian Islamist rebels, again going against NATO policy. It is only now Erdogan has overplayed his hand in Syria, causing a confrontation with Russia, that Erdogan at least nominally is trying to bring Turkish foreign policy somewhat more in line with general NATO/Western policy. This is clearly out of opportunism, not out of a deep felt sense of solidarity with NATO and the EU or the values they stand for. Then the question is, how much influence does Turkey’s NATO membership give us over Erdogan, and how vulnerable is NATO to being stabbed in the back by Erdogan when the opportunity presents itself?
A third potential reason to keep Turkey as an ally is the degree to which it helps the Turkish opposition to oppose Erdogan. However, I do not think this actually does help the opposition. The fact of the matter seems to be that a large part of the Turkish population supports autocracy. (Also, a worryingly large number of Turks abroad support Erdogan, something I do not at all feel comfortable with. I refer to Aboutaleb on this issue). Those people do not care about the EU or NATO membership, or about freedom and democracy. Moreover, Erdogan has been repressing freedom of speech already, he has openly spoken against democracy, clearly he does not care at all what Western governments think about him. Besides, Turkey has completely followed its own foreign policy in Syria, making it a completely unreliable ally, almost bringing NATO in a conflict with Russia.
This means that severing ties with Turkey is not a credible threat to Erdogan’s position of power, so continuing the relationship with Turkey to keep the threat of severing ties as a option does not work. Although it would help Erdogan with creating the image that the whole world is trying to harm Turkey, he is already portraying the West as the enemy of the people anyway (rule number one in the Big Dictator Book: create an enemy of the people). So, maintaining relations with Turkey will not help the Turkish opposition, while severing ties with Turkey will not particularly strengthen Erdogan. Meanwhile, severing ties with Turkey might provide a rallying point for the Turkish opposition (think of the Maidan Square in Ukraine), while Erdogan basically does not seem to give a flying **** about whatever the West is doing. All he needs NATO for is as a partner against Russia in his megalomaniac plans for the Middle East.
All in all, there seems to be little reason to maintain particularly friendly relations with Turkey as long as Erdogan is the leader of that country. As much as I liked Turkey when I was there on holiday, I have seldomly met such hospitable people, Erdogan’s policies make it impossible for NATO and the EU to see Turkey as a serious ally. Erdogan is a megalomaniac dictator, which means Turkey does not fit in NATO or the EU, nor should Western men and women have to die if Erdogan’s ego drags Turkey in some senseless war with Russia. The German comedian who dared to stand up against this tyrant, most unlike European leaders, and had to pay with his safety and freedom for this, deserves our praise. No, the poem was not funny, it was very rude and juvenile. But, building 1000 room palaces, bombing Kurds, supporting ISIS, and feeling the need to build a latter day Ottoman Empire is far more rude and juvenile. If you feel the need for that, play a video game. In any case, you are not worthy of being a first rank Western ally. At most Turkey can be an ally of convenience, like Egypt or Morocco, but not an ally in spirit and conviction, as NATO and EU membership would express. In the meantime, I wish all Turks suffering from this man the best of luck and all the strength they need. Hopefully brighter days will come, in which Turkey can take its rightful place among the free and democratic nations once more.
Update: The newest fashion in Ankara is calling NATO allies fascists and NAZIs. Seeing Turkey was neutral during the second world war, I doubt Erdogan understands how insulting this is. Nevertheless, let’s take the insult at face value. It is time to rethink our relations with Turkey.
Bottom Line: Turkey under Erdogan does not behave like an ally, he openly refers to the West as an enemy, he disrespects freedom and democracy. As long as this man leads Turkey, Turkey cannot be a NATO or EU ally. I wish the Turkish opposition all the luck they need to overthrow this tyrant.