Throughout his prominence in Turkish politics, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now the nation’s president, has raised eyebrows more than a few times. From his remarks on childrearing, “One or two children mean bankruptcy,” to his war on Wikipedia, which he once claimed posed a “national security threat”, Erdoğan has provided occasional entertainment to the international community. But it’s certainly not all fun and games. Joining these rather ridiculous remarks and regulations have been very real moves towards categorical authoritarianism.
Even the most casual observers of international politics likely have some idea of Erdoğan’s serious misbehavior. As the New York Times reported, Erdoğan has “jailed journalists, seized the assets of political opponents, and crushed dissent while amassing complete control over the levers of Turkish power.” Less noticeable to the outside world, he has also introduced corruption, patronage and cronyism into Turkey’s economy. After a failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016, Erdoğan went even further to jail thousands of judges, military officials and political opponents, and initiated a widespread crackdown on social media. For Turkish citizens, the effects of the President’s actions are brutally clear. What isn’t so apparent, however, both to Turkey’s citizens and the rest of the world, are the effects of these authoritarian policies on Europe.
To briefly preface, it is no secret that Europe is not exactly a bastion of Western liberal democracy. Europe has what one could call a growing basket of bad eggs: A collection of nations within the region, both European Union (EU) members and otherwise, that increasingly defy democratic ideals and practices. Take Belarus, for instance. Since its independence in 1990 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus has been brutally ruled by one man: Alexander Lukashenko. Much like Erdoğan, Lukashenko’s time in office has been marred by crackdowns on political opponents and a sophisticated repression of the media. Hungary offers a comparable case, with a downward trend characterised by “increasing intimidation of civil society groups and the opposition which has left citizens more reluctant to speak out on political topics,” as Freedom House has described it. Freedom House also reports that Bulgaria, rarely a champion of democratic practices, continues to face threats to judicial independence, widespread corruption, and a deterioration of the media’s freedoms.
Since his rise to the Presidency, Erdoğan has made a point of demonstrating his support for the antidemocratic practices of these states, frequently criticizing the EU in the process. When the Turkish President visited Minsk in 2016, he extolled the “shared political vision” between the countries and praised Lukashenko for building “his own style of democracy.” A visit by Erdoğan to Hungary this past summer yielded similar results. During the visit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban harshly criticized what he called “undemocratic” Western European countries and lauded Erdoğan for “bringing ‘good stability’ to Turkey, which [Orban] counted among countries that ‘can stop’ the migrant influx into the EU.”
These examples show a very disturbing trend in which Erdoğan and European dictators appear to be feeding off of mutual validation in order to justify the continuation of their repressive practices. Erdoğan’s tactics and methods even seem to be inspiring the policies of EU nations. The fact that Hungary’s migration policy has taken cues not from Brussels but from Ankara is shocking. Subsequent to the agreement on an eventual EU-Turkey migration deal, Hungary promptly followed in the spirit of Erdoğan, who nearly halted EU negotiations on migration by threatening to unleash a wave of migrants on Europe. According to the Guardian, Hungary “passed a constitutional amendment stating that an ‘alien population’ cannot be settled in Hungary,” a clear jab at Brussels. Bulgaria, too, offers another example of EU states turning away from the rules and institutions of the Union in favor of Turkey.
In 2016, the Bulgarian government arrested seven of President Erdoğan’s political opponents as they attempted to cross into Bulgaria from Romania. In a move that shocked the European political establishment, the government, in gross violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, then proceeded to extradite the opposition politicians back to Turkey without hearings. While Bulgaria is hardly an ally of Turkey—the two countries disagree over the status of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria—Erdoğan’s accommodating behavior towards European autocratic states has still given them an excuse to pivot away from the liberal-democratic institutions in Brussels. Furthermore, the mere fact that Turkey is a NATO ally to some of these “basket countries” legitimizes their relationships with Turkey not as one with a rogue repressive state, but one with a fellow participant in liberal international institutions.
If these relationships continue to grow, they will certainly drive a wedge between EU stalwarts, such as Germany, and the “basket countries.” At the very least, this will make the usual business of the EU challenging and contentious, even almost devoid of internal cohesion. In a worst case scenario, this could lead to efforts by such countries to leave the EU as their increasing repression finds itself incompatible with EU rule of law. In fact, one-third of Poles already favor leaving the European Union. As it stands, the EU is troublingly fragmented over issues such as Brexit, migration policy, and concerns about supposed “top-down” governance by Brussels. Germany, in particular, may grow to find the influence of Turkey infuriating, especially as Hungary appears to favor Turkish migration policy over Germany’s exhaustively negotiated EU plan. Finally, Turkey’s increasingly close relationship with Russia has the potential to give Putin another avenue to sow discord within the EU. Conceivably, using their nascent good graces with Erdoğan, Russia could encourage and facilitate the growth of Turkish ties to the EU’s rebellious countries with the intention degrading EU membership and legitimacy.
Beyond all of these concerns, the situation is simply bizarre: Turkey has been striving for EU ascension for years, and yet seems to be doing all that it can to undermine and anger the institution and its traditional leaders. Given this, the EU might consider a rather simple antidote to this complex mess. It’s time for them to perform a will test: Erdoğan must reduce his “inspirational” authoritarian tendencies, and reduce his enthusiasm for exporting them, or risk losing any hope of EU membership (which he maintains is a top priority of his administration). This test of sorts could also be reinforced by more lively efforts by NATO leadership to keep Erdoğan in line. Whatever may come of this situation, one thing is certain: our eyebrows will be raised.