The EU foreign policy chief and her US counterpart, John Kerry, sent a joint message to President Erdogan: We're watching you! They can’t back that up, fears Barbara Wesel.
"Told you so" is a useless political argument when we have to stand by and watch a horrible situation unfold before our eyes. Holding out hope or needing a quick fix to a vexing problem sometimes leads to making political decisions against better wisdom. The German chancellor saw Turkish president Erdogan as the quick fix to the refugee crisis last fall. She needed a way out and betted on Turkey's questionable democratic stability. That bet has now shown itself to be an illusion.
It's clear that the arrest list for thousands of people had been prepared long ago and only recently pulled out of the drawer. What's happening now in Turkey isn't simply a spontaneous reaction to an attempted coup, but a long-planned elimination of political opponents to the AKP and its leader. Some in European Parliament are describing it akin to Stalin's purges. The conclusion is foregone: Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the untouchable ruler, his opposition in prison and Turkey turned from democracy to dictatorship.
Those opponents will be lucky if it's only prison: Erdogan is using his populist-backed strength to attempt to reintroduce the death penalty. The message from Brussels is at least crystal clear; it would mean the immediate end to membership negotiations. Berlin has stated the same, though the German government has acted with extreme care and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been needlessly walking on eggshells. There is such a thing as too much diplomatic restraint.
The Turkish president has so unabashedly expressed his autocratic cravings because he's that confident that Europe and the US need him more than he needs them. This isn't entirely unfounded: Europe has given him a refugee deal, but that's no reason to be trapped by it. What can Erdogan do? Open the floodgates to Europe and let in millions of Syrian refugees? Even then, it remains an open question just how much influence Turkey has at stemming the refugee flow. The Europeans can only make good on their threat to end the relationship with Turkey if they can free themselves of the refugee deal they struck. This does not have to happen immediately; however the EU will lose all credibility should it remain silent while Erdogan emerges from the put down of the coup as omnipotent dictator.
Europe and the US have little leverage
More important is Turkey's role in NATO. Its geographic location makes it the most important partner in the struggle against IS and a possible solution to the Syrian civil war. US Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that commitment to democratic values is a cornerstone to NATO membership. However, should President Erdogan be so reckless as to put the US-Turkey relationship at risk, it will indicate he's lost all interest in normal political considerations. Next month's meeting with Russia's President Putin is a further signal of Ankara's change in course.
Political tools are no longer able to stop the Sultan on the Bosphorus - only economic ones. That begins with a collapse in tourism followed by an exodus of investors and major companies. For now, however, the EU and the US can only look on. If Erdogan cuts all ties in an effort to grab power, Europe will have little more than sympathy to give citizens of Turkey.