Unyielding Erdogan

Hardline Turkish Politics Undermine Migrant Deal

Let me tell you how I view democracy.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If taken too far, Turkish President Recep Ayyip Erdogan’s heavy-handed counter-terrorism agenda at home could undermine its refugee deal with the European Union and talks over its E.U. membership.

  • Facts


    • Turkey’s parliament on Friday will vote on a bid backed by President  Recep Ayyip Erdogan to strip immunity status from a quarter of parliamentarians.
    • The proposed law mainly threatens members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, who could face terrorism charges under a loose legal definition.
    • As part of the E.U.-Turkey migrant deal in March, Ankara agreed to reform its counter-terrorisms laws targeting Kurdish parliamentarians and other government critics.
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unyielding in the face of European Union calls for his Islamic conservative government to soften anti-terrorism laws over concerns that they are too broad and could be used to muzzle political opponents.

Despite threatening to undermine a deal with the European Union to stem the flow of illegal immigration – in exchange for billions of euros in financial aid and visa-free E.U. travel for Turks – a spokesman for the Turkish president on Wednesday told reporters in Ankara that weakening the laws would “encourage terror organizations” and was “out of the question.”

Rather than compromise, President Erdogan is hardening his stance ahead of a Friday vote in Turkey’s parliament to strip immunity status from a quarter of parliamentarians. The proposed action mainly threatens members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, who could face terrorism charges under a loose legal definition.

German Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, in an interview with the newspaper Die Süddeutsche on Thursday, accussed Mr. Erdogan of “autocratic ambitions” and of initiating a “whole series of events with which Turkey is further distancing itself from our standards of democracy.”

Mr. Lammert, who is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said the Turkish president’s latest attack on the country’s parliamentary and democratic structures could only be successful if “the parliament were prepared to go down the path of self-empowerment.” He warned that now was the time to show “self-assertion.”

In the same interview, Bundestag Vice President Johannes Singhammer, said Mr. Erdogan is “crossing the Rubicon” with his plans to lift immunity. Given this situation, he added, the European Union cannot approve visa-free travel for Turks.

“This issue belongs to negotiations with Turkey over E.U. membership. It has nothing to do with the refugee deal.”

Elmar Brok, Head of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs

In national elections last year, the HDP broke the 10-percent threshold required to enter parliament by winning 13 percent of the vote. With a slate of minority, gay and women candidates, the party appealed to Turkish citizens opposed to Mr. Erdogan’s policies.

Should Mr. Erdogan secure a two-thirds majority in parliament on Friday, the impact would be felt far beyond Turkey’s borders. It could drive a wedge between the European Union and Turkey, jeopardizing the future of the E.U.-Turkey migrant deal and adding another obstacle to Turkey’s longstanding bid for E.U. membership.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the refugee agreement’s most ardent backers, also stands to lose face. Ms. Merkel promoted the E.U.-Turkey deal as a critical part of the solution to Europe’s unprecedented influx of refugees from war-ravaged regions. More than 1.1 million asylum seekers entered into Germany alone in 2015.

At the chancellor’s behest, Turkey in March agreed to take back all migrants and refugees who crossed the Aegean Sea illegally to enter E.U. member state Greece. In exchange, she and other E.U. heads of state offered the possibility of visa waivers for Turks, under certain conditions, beginning as early as the end of June. They also guaranteed €6 billion ($6.8 billion) in financial assistance to help Turkey provide for 2.8 million Syrian refugees.

19 p5 Refugees in the E.U-01

But Turkey must fulfill 72 conditions outlined in the agreement, including a reform of its counter-terrorism laws targeting Kurdish parliamentarians and other government critics.

Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, called the lifting of immunity for members of the HDP party an “intolerable” action that the Europe Union must sharply oppose. “But this issue belongs to negotiations with Turkey over E.U. membership,” Mr. Brok said in an interview with Handelsblatt. “It has nothing to do with the refugee deal.”

The migrant deal with Turkey was succeeding, according to Mr. Brok. “The flow of refugees from Turkey has been drastically reduced,” he said, adding he was “completely certain” that the Turkish president is committed to saving the deal.

But some European politicians remain unconvinced.

Rebecca Harms, co-head of Green Party group in the European Parliament blasted Turkey’s latest counter-terrorism proposal as proof “that it is wrong to base Europe’s refugee strategy centrally on agreements with Turkey.”

turkey refugees-uygar onder simsek-dpa
Turkey is crucial to stemming the flow of refugees to the European Union. Source: Uygar Onder Simsek/DPA


Chancellor Merkel will have the opportunity to gauge for herself just how committed Mr. Erdogan is to rescuing the deal when she travels to Istanbul on Sunday for the U.N. World Humanitarian Summit.

Germany industry, with its close trade ties to Turkey, is deeply concerned over President Erdogan’s “exclusive claim to power,” said Volker Treier, head of international economic affairs at the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

While Germany is Turkey’s No. 1 trade partner, Mr. Treier noted that Turkey also is Germany’s most important emerging market after China and Russia.

Ulrich Grillo, head of the Federation of German Industries, issued Turkey a stern warning. “Without partners, the further economic modernization of the country will not succeed,” he said.

One of Germany’s top business lobbyists, Mr. Grillo warned that decisions to invest in Turkey would depend on the country’s dependability and predictability.

Adding an additional layer of complexity to German-Turkey relations, German lawmakers on June 2 plan to vote on a resolution in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, that would label the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I as “genocide.”

A spokesman for President Erdogan called the measure “political exploitation.”

Ruth Berschens is Handelsblatt’s bureau chief in Brussels. Thomas Ludwig reports on the E.U. from Brussels. Thomas Sigmund is Berlin bureau chief. To contact the authors: berschens@handelsblatt.com ludwig@handelsblatt.comsigmund@handelsblatt.com.

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