1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Opinion: An unpleasant victory for Brussels

Barbara Wesel November 2, 2015

The EU would have preferred a coalition government in Ankara. Now, Europe has to dance to Erdogan's tune if it wants his help in the refugee crisis, says DW's Barbara Wesel.

Brüssel Treffen mit türkischem Präsidenten Tayyip Erdogan
Image: Reuters/F. Lenoir

We wish Ankara a stable government - that is how the European Union put it officially before election day in Turkey. Most people did not expect the sweeping victory of the former and current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Were opinion pollsters completely off the mark again? Or were the elections fudged? Was there not enough reason to doubt the democratic validity of these elections, like the rekindled war on Kurds, the unexplained bomb attacks in Ankara, the repression of the opposition and critical media?

The EU needs the "Sultan of the Bosphorus"

The irony of the story lies in the fact that the EU has neglected the conflict with the "Sultan of the Bosphorus" for years. There was no need to argue with him, as EU talks had been put on the backburner anyway. And thus, the ascent of an autocratic ruler at the threshold of the EU has continued and gone fairly unnoticed by Brussels because it has had more important problems to deal with. Now, the Europeans are in the unfortunate position of needing Erdogan more than he needs Europe. Without him, there will be no solution to the refugee crisis, which threatens to tear apart the European Union. The president, however, no longer feels any political pressure as his power has been sealed and domestically, the two million Syrians in Turkey are not a crucial issue for him. Evidently, his compatriots have a relaxed stance towards the refugees.

Erdogan is thus in the convenient position of being able to hike the cost of the smallest political favor as high as he feels necessary. Insider circles in Brussels predict a prolonged phase of bazaar diplomacy with Turkey and many believe that the Turkish president has more leverage than the EU. Like Angela Merkel, leading European politicians will make a pilgrimage to Erdogan and offer him a bow of the head. What an outright unpleasant thought! The EU is now at the mercy of Erdogan, says a long-serving European parliamentarian. This is, unfortunately, true and the president will savor every moment of it.

Barbara Wesel Studio Brüssel
Barbara Wesel, DW's correspondent in BrusselsImage: DW/G. Matthes

How far can practical politics go?

In view of this situation, Europeans will no longer ask whether they must sell out their principles to ensure Turkey's cooperation, but instead, how far they are willing to go. If the eastern European states had a scrap of sense, then they would have to recognize the fact that an internal EU compromise would be better than making its future dependent on the autocrat in Ankara.

But people cannot suddenly be reasonable overnight, so Europeans will be confronted with tough and embarrassing negotiations. They will repeatedly have to ask themselves how much their democratic ideals are actually worth. Europe is in the process of selling out in installments. The EU has already missed the chance to put its foot down when dealing with the little dictator in Hungary. And now that Erdogan is on his way to becoming the great dictator of Turkey, the EU will have very few arguments and no means of exerting political pressure to demand democracy.

Negotiations will be unpleasant

Upcoming negotiations on refugees will be unpleasant when it comes to the Turkish president's demands in exchange for preventing refugees from traveling to Europe and acting as a border guard for the EU. The only collateral the Europeans possess is Turkey's desire for visa liberalization - it is of economic importance to Erdogan. In general, only the subject of economic cooperation may perhaps open doors to concessions in the refugee issue.

When the haggling starts, there is one line Europeans should not cross: the treatment of Kurds. If Erdogan does not soften his tough stance on the Kurds, then the EU must pull the ripcord and solve the refugee crisis without him. Europe now sees the affirmation of a purported Chinese curse: It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than humane in a chaotic period.

Have something to say? Add your comments below.