Prime Minister Erdoğan seems to be going out of his way lately to push the European Union’s buttons. First, while in Berlin for meetings with Angela Merkel, he gave the EU an ultimatum that Turkey would halt its accession talks for good if it was not granted EU membership by 2023. Turkey’s frustration at being strung along is quite understandable, but there’s no doubt that Erdoğan’s threat to drop out of the process ruffled some European feathers. While in Germany he also made a strange reference to Turkey not adopting the euro but setting up its own “lira zone” which would presumably compete with the euro zone, thrilling a segment of Turkish nationalists who are convinced that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU but leaving many observers scratching their heads as the lira has a low trading volume and it is unclear which countries, if any, would ever join such a project.
The biggest salvo aimed at the EU, however, has been the prime minister’s recent comments on the death penalty. Erdoğan has now hinted that Turkey should reinstate the death penalty in a number of different forums, including an AKP meeting, a press conference, and on twitter, where he said that the state is not entitled to forgive a killer and that some killings may warrant the death penalty. Ahmet Davutoğlu and Sadullah Ergin both insist that Erdoğan was only referring to the Norwegian mass murdered Anders Breivik and that no preparations are being made for Turkey to reinstate the death penalty, but the issue rankles the EU nonetheless. While Turkey has not executed anyone since 1984, it officially abolished the death penalty in 2002 as part of its reforms aimed at joining the EU, and this issue is associated with EU reforms perhaps more than any other. That Erdoğan is now bringing up the death penalty is seen as a direct affront to the EU and is being taken by some as a signal that Erdoğan is trying to put some distance between Turkey and Europe. The prime minister’s comments prompted a swift response from Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, who stated in no uncertain terms that a Turkish move to reinstate the death penalty would deliver an enormous blow to Turkey-EU relations.
It seems strange that Erdoğan is going out of his way to upset the Europeans, and while the death penalty row is a patented Erdoğan technique for deflecting attention away from the government’s missteps by bringing up a controversial issue (see his comments on abortion sweeping the Uludere airstrikes right off the front pages over the summer), this time it fits into a larger pattern of implicit and explicit EU-bashing. I actually don’t think that what is going on is about the EU at all, but is a misguided effort on Erdoğan’s part to pressure European countries into being more active in solving the Syria mess. Erdoğan has been trying in vain to get the U.S. or NATO to intervene, so far to no avail, and not only has he not made any progress but has managed to annoy both the U.S. and NATO by keeping up the rhetorical pressure in public and constantly bringing up intervention in private. Instead of recognizing that this strategy has failed and coming up with a new approach, I think Erdoğan is trying something similar now with the EU but from a different direction. Ankara has made it clear that Syria is its absolute top priority right now, and Erdoğan is playing on European fears that the West is going to “lose” Turkey. By threatening to withdraw from the EU process and by implying that he will consider reinstating the death penalty, Erdoğan is trying to do whatever he can to get European states to act to bring back Turkey into the fold – a fold that Turkey has never actually left – and the easiest way to do that is to give Turkey a helping hand on Syria. Deploying Patriot missiles along the Syrian border is the U.S. and NATO response to keeping Turkey happy and by taking constant digs at the EU, Erdoğan is trying to coax some European action in order to pacify Turkey, whether it be greater rhetorical pressure on Syria and recognition of the Syrian opposition (as France did yesterday) or a renewed push in the Security Council for some sort of action. The question is whether Europe is going to play along or call Erdoğan’s bluff, and that remains to be seen. In any event, I don’t think that the recent attempts to imply distancing from Europe is about Europe at all, but like so much else going on with Turkey these days, is actually about what’s taking place with its next door neighbor.