This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey. There she announced that she will push to accelerate Turkey’s accession to the European Union. That is pretty surprising statement from a politician who was elected 10 years ago, in 2005, on the promise that Turkey would never join the EU. In May 2010 Merkel went even further and ruled out the possibility of Turkey becoming member of the European club.
The obvious reason Merkel wants to appease Turkey is another promise she made: that Germany would host 800,000 refugees. Refugees reacted so enthusiastically that they started to come in the thousands. When even the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Bavaria, started revolting, Merkel quickly realized that this might not have been the best decision to win the next election.
The subsequent plan was then to spread the refugees over the member-states of the EU. This plan too was hardly welcomed by many European countries. Four countries voted against the plan, but were forced to take their part of the quota for refugees. Everybody knows that the European plan will quickly need to be updated as refugees keep coming. It seems improbable that Merkel can push a new plan through. The only possible way to stop the flow of refugees is to convince Turkey to keep them there and stop them from travelling on to Europe.
Turkey prepared well for Merkel’s visit. In return of agreeing on a common EU–Turkey Joint Action Plan on migrants, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu requested four points: the opening of negotiation chapters with the EU, visa liberalization for Turks traveling to the EU, 3 billion euro to deal with the refugees, and the invitation of Turkish leaders to EU summits.
These four points are Turkish frustrations dating back to more than 10 years. In April 2004, the United Nations organized a referendum on the Kofi Annan plan to solve the Cyprus dispute, Turkey’s decades-long occupation and partition of the island. Turkey convinced the Turkish Cypriots to vote in favour. The Greek Cypriots, however, voted against the plan. Nevertheless, the Greek part of Cyprus became a member of the EU in May 2004. In the years to come, it would do everything to block the process of Turkish membership.
One year later, in October 2005 the EU started accession talks with Turkey. A decades-old dream of Turkey seemed to be coming true. Then, a month later, Merkel was elected as Germany’s new chancellor on a program that opposed Turkish membership. In May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France. He, too, openly opposed Turkish accession. The Turkish-European relations soured.
In 2009, Erdogan chose a new minister of foreign affairs—Ahmet Davutoglu. Davutoglu was a well-known thinker and academic with neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamist ideas. His vision (PDF) was that Turkey should be looking East rather than West and try to create cooperation with the Arab World. The glue for this plan was religion and the Ottoman history of Turkey and the region. As foreign minister, he propagated the “Zero Problems Policy” with neighbouring countries.
When the Arab Spring took off in December 2010, Davutoglu and Erdogan saw their chance. Turkey would be the model of future Islamic democracies in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and other countries that would follow their path. Erdogan visited these countries and was welcomed as a hero. Masses on the street shouted: “Erdogan, Saladin.” Erdogan also tried to convince Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad to reform instead of repressing. It didn’t work.
When the Islamist party Ennahda won the election in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood did so in Egypt, Erdogan and Davutoglu saw a great opportunity for their pan-Islamist and neo-Ottoman agenda. Erdogan promoted himself as the defender of the Palestinians and of the armed rebels in Syria. Turkey also started to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, the only country where the Islamists lost the elections.
In May 2013, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had to deal with its own revolt on Taksim square in Istanbul. The protests quickly spread to all parts of Turkey. One month later, Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted by mass protests and an army coup. The friends of the Muslim Brotherhood became the enemies of Egypt’s new strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. When Ennahda lost the elections in Tunisia, it seemed that Erdogan and Davutoglu had lost all their friends. But the worst was yet to come.
In June 2014, the Islamic State declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. As a result Iraq seemed to have fallen apart. Together with the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish groups were the only forces able to push ISIS back. The last non-NATO strategic partner of Turkey, Russia, decided a few weeks ago to save Erdogan’s enemy, Assad, with fighter jets and arms. In close coordination with Assad, Russia and Hizbollah Iran now started to pour in thousands of ground troops.
In short, the dream of Erdogan and Davutoglu was shattered. There was not one ally or friend left in the neo-Ottoman region. Even Qatar had to change its pro-Muslim Brotherhood strategy after being politically strangled by Saudi Arabia. Turkey played but the game was lost.
On top of AKP’s foreign policy failures, it had to deal with problems at home. The war with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist insurgency, restarted while the world looked more and more wearily at Turkey. Selahattin Demirtaş and his PKK-aligned Turkish political party HDP managed to get over the last election’s threshold of 10 percent. AKP lost its majority. In less than two weeks Turkey has a new national election, with opinion polls looking pretty much the same as the last electoral result. AKP and its chairman Davutoglu have to do everything to get their majority back.
As looking to the East has become a catastrophe, there is only one option left: turn westward again. While Europe is panicking over a few hundred thousand refugees, Turkey is hosting more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Turkish insiders told me that the government is looking into a program to grant some kind of citizenship to these Syrians as they know that a lot of them will not go back soon.
Davutoglu and Merkel are in survival mode. They have to cast aside old principles and promises in order to save what they have. For Merkel, it is not only about her re-election but also about the position of Germany in Europe. For Davutoglu, it is more than a collapsed dream; it is about getting Turkey out of its current dangerous isolation. The current deal—refugees for EU membership—is for both the only way out of a situation they themselves created.