“Wer auf die Türkei verlässt, ist verlassen” – those who trust Turkey cannot be helped. Austria’s foreign minister Sebastian Kurz has held a clear anti-Erdogan stance in the past year, especially since the happenings following the attempted military Coup in the country earlier this year. The relations between Turkey and Austria significantly cooled, the tone between Vienna and Ankara grew increasingly harsh. In Summer, Turkey pulled their ambassador out of Vienna for “briefing”. Kurz didn’t fear confrontation with other countries in Europe, either, as the EU closed its eyes to the human rights abuses that were happening right at its doorstep, and continue the accession negotiations of Turkey to the European Union. Now, Austria has announced that their foreign minister will veto the continuation of the accession negotiations early next week – not only of Turkey, but (involuntarily) also of the countries in the Balkans, some of which Austria has close ties to.
Turkey’s quest for EU membership
Turkey started the process aiming at becoming a member of the European Union in 1999, 15 years before Erdogan became the prime minister. The accession negotiations commenced in 2005, and have gone on since.
Discussions were fairly slow due to the differences between what the EU considered its and the west’s “values” and happenings inside Turkey. The treatment of the Kurds within the country and the Armenian genocide were two key differences. Another major difference was the stance on the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, especially of the Republic of Cyprus as an EU member, which was formed in the Turkish occupied zone in Norther Cyprus following the invasion on the island in 1974.
Negotiations dragged on but didn’t advance much for the years to come, until the “migrant crisis” forced the European union and Turkey to closer cooperation from 2015 onwards. What resulted, was the refugee deal – basically stating that Turkey should be considered a safe country of origin, and all refugees should be kept in Turkey rather than continuing their journey towards Europe. Together with the effective closure of the Balkan route, this led to a significant drop in the number of political refugees streaming into Europe from the Middle East, but also made the number of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats soar. And so did the number of people drowning in the ocean; around 4,000 are estimated by the UN to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hope for a better life away from war and oppression, in this year alone.
The refugee deal, highly encouraged and pushed by the German administration under Merkel, reduced the pressure on many European governments but led to a tragic increase in the number of deaths; a fact that was largely ignored by these governments.
Turkey as a global power
What the European countries provided Turkey with through the refugee deal was a tool of great political power, a political leverage that could help Erdogan’s government to get what they want from Europe and the EU. And they didn’t wait long to use it. In June of 2016, the German Bundestag (Parliament) decided that Germany was to officially recognize the genocide against the Armenian as what it actually was; a genocide against the Armenian people. Erdogan’s administration gets their legitimization by repeatedly referring to the “greatness” of the Ottoman empire, so criticism towards its actions, especially such a severe human rights abuse as a genocide, is not very favorable in their eyes. Turkey still doesn’t officially recognize the genocide as a genocide, so political climate between the two countries became ice-cold. During the time that the Armenian genocide was being discussed in the German Parliament, Ankara repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” and let all the refugees pass through Europe to Germany.
Turkey also threatened to cancel the refugee deal as a reaction to European countries’ governments criticizing the crackdown on opposition and disregard of human rights in Turkey following the attempted Coup.
Turkey has a good geopolitical position; it controls the Bosporus, which is the only connection from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and hence to the rest of the world. Russia’s only permanently ice-free access to the world’s oceans is located in the Black sea (on the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014), hence it is essential for Russia to be able to pass through the Bosporus strait. Turkey is also located where Europe and Asia meet, and therefore is the quickest route between the two continents. And it is a relatively stable region next to the middle east, and boasts NATO’s second largest army. There are many other factors that enable Turkey to pressure other countries and unions into doing things for them or turning a blind eye to what Erdogan’s administration is doing in the country. It is their good geopolitical position that made it doable for them to shoot down a Russian jet that breached its airspace and then severe ties to Moscow. They don’t fear the US, either – being the second largest military in the NATO, and with the US military base at Incirlik, from which the US flies a large part of their mission in the Middle East, that Turkey could easily cut off from the rest of the world. Turkey is so important to Europe, that the EU often considers Turkey’s wishes more important than those of the EU members Greece and Cyprus.
Most frighteningly, though, Turkey was able to keep other governments’ criticism regarding its human rights abuses following the attempted coup in the country at a very low level, and the EU kept accession negotiations of Turkey to the block going as if nothing had happened. Although there were halfhearted statements issued by a few government condemning Erdogan’s actions, the EU 28 seemed to more or less be fine with it as long as the refugee deal would continue to exist. They let Turkey get away with jailing over 3,000 people from the opposition, closing newspapers, TV and radio stations and purging all officials that could be a threat to his expansion of power.
Austria as the savior of the free world?
But then there’s Austria. Who would’ve expected that a small alpine country of not even 9 million would stand up to Turkey, when the rest of the EU and most of the world seemed to turn a blind eye to what was happening there. Historically, Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) and Austria were rivals, in constant conflict with one another in the Balkans. But since the end of both the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empire, relations normalized – until recently. Austria’s politicians, especially foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, made it very clear that Austria will stick to its values and will not accept Turkey abolishing freedom of press, systematically hunting down opposition and purging opposing politicians, and most recently trying to re-instate the death penalty. Austria, they said, would not accept Turkey being transformed into a dictatorship by Erdogan.
Now, Kurz decided to use the political emergency brake – he vowed to veto the continuation of all accession negotiations at the council of foreign ministers of the EU in the coming week. That, however, would not only stop the negotiations with Turkey, but also with those countries of the Balkan that are currently in the process of becoming EU members, some of which have close ties to Austria.
Even within the EU, the opinions about the talks with Turkey are very different; the EU commission recommended to continue the negotiations, while the Union’s Parliament suggested to halt the talks in November.
On Tuesday, Kurz is also expecting support from the Netherlands’ and Bulgaria’s foreign ministers. “We are pulling together”, the Austrian foreign minister said regarding these supporters.
To pass a resolution, the council of foreign ministers of the EU has to be in uniform agreement – which Kurz said he will use to block the resolution to continue the negotiations if there aren’t any changes made to the text to include Autria’s point of view.
“It cannot be that Turkey has an increasingly bad trend of rule of law, democracy and human rights and the EU continues the accession negotiations as if nothing would be going on”, Kurz stated. He also warned that Europe should not let itself be pressured into doing things simply because of the refugee pact with Turkey: “If we allow Turkey to do whatever we want and turn a blind eye to what is going on there just because of the refugee deal, we will move towards a dangerous type of dependence.” Europe, so he said, must watch Turkey closely and react. “Otherwise we will soon be the victims ourselves, when politically persecuted people or Kurds set out for Europe as refugees.”
If the decision of the council of foreign ministers of the EU is vetoed by Austria, that would also freeze the accession negotiations of the western Balkan nations. The Austrian Press Agency said that the foreign ministry had informally asked the affected nations to understand Austria’s position and the necessity of the decision, while also emphasizing that bilateral relations to Bosnia and Herzegowina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania as well as Serbia and Kosovo would be significantly enhanced.
So while the rest of the world seems to be more or less grudgingly accepting Turkey’s transition to a dictatorship, it is little, insignificant Austria that wants to stop the EU from continuing talks with Turkey about accepting it into the union if things in the country don’t change. Austria, the new leader of the free world?