TSG IntelBrief: Tensions Rise Between Turkey and the EU
March 13, 2017

Tensions Rise Between Turkey and the EU


Bottom Line Up Front:

• Relations between Turkey and the EU have plummeted to historic lows.

• Turkey has gone from potential EU member to consistent antagonist, with enormous consequences for all sides.

• The Netherlands is the latest target for Turkish President Erdogan, who is trying to drum up support for an election that increases the power of his office.

• The growing rift between Turkey and the EU is both a reflection of Erdogan’s autocratic behavior as well as rising right-wing populism in Europe.


There is a perfect storm gathering in the EU and Turkey, with local elections feeding off of larger concerns about immigration and national identity. In the Netherlands, the March 15 general elections are seen as the test case and warning sign for how right-wing populist candidates will fare in upcoming elections across the EU. In Turkey, the April election that would increase the power of the president (moving the country from a parliamentary to executive style of government) is both a harbinger of change as well as a reflection of the dramatic change that has already occurred. The connection between these two seemingly unrelated elections, and the significant trends underneath them, were made clear this weekend as relations between Turkey and the EU fell to new lows.

In order to drum up support for the referendum to increase the power of his office, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sent ministers to EU countries for campaign rallies among the sizable Turkish expatriate population, whose vote could decide the outcome. Such campaigning in foreign countries is technically illegal for Turkish politicians and government officials, but Erdogan is determined to solidify his power. Having served as Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014, Erdogan was elected in 2014 to the largely ceremonial office of president and immediately began to shift the levers of power towards his new office. Doing so has required alliances with Turkish nationalist parties, who had previously been among his most ardent opponents. 

It is difficult to overstate how far the Turkish-EU relationship has fallen. From once hoping for EU membership to now calling the governments of Germany and the Netherlands ‘remnants of Nazis,’ Erdogan has amassed personal power while shredding relations with neighbors and trading partners. The ‘zero problems’ policy of his Justice and Development party (AKP) has been weaponized against the West, resulting in abysmal diplomatic relations with nearly everyone. Ankara now has better relations with Moscow—the November 2015 downing of a Russian SU-24 along the Syrian border notwithstanding—than with Berlin, a reality that is both difficult to comprehend and to manage in terms of continental stability.

As Erdogan is poised to leverage the latest tensions between Turkey and the EU, right-wing European politicians such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands will do the same. The Dutch general elections on March 15 could see Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) gain enough seats to form a coalition government. Protests and violence over the weekend arising from The Hague’s refusal to allow the Turkish Foreign Minister to land and attend a political rally show both the EU’s wariness of Ankara whipping up political tensions in European capitals, as well as the very real and growing populist sentiment that is often shaped by politicians such as Wilders into a West-versus-Islam outlook. 

Despite the reality that all sides would benefit from effective relations between the EU and Turkey, there is little chance that the crucial relationship improves in the near term. The political extremes in the EU and Turkey will feed off of the actions of each other, with a feedback loop of confirmation bias that sees every incident—such as pro-Turkish riots in the Netherlands—as justification for their stance. The elections ahead will help show the depths of the divisions in long-stable countries, and reveal the scale of the challenges ahead in terms of the EU as a sustainable construct in a time of rising anti-globalist sentiment and strong rejections of integration.


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