It’s in the air. You can feel it coming like the first rains of winter. Something almost inevitable, and yet when it happens the leaders of the EU will act as dumbfounded and as startled as ostriches that have just pulled their head from the sand, where most of them have buried them all summer. It seems not even the disastrous Brexit vote of no confidence in their institution can galvanise them into action. I am of course talking about the Migrant crisis – which ultimately triggered Brexit and sent such a wave of self centred nationalism around Europe that it now threatens the very foundations of the 60 year old treaty of Rome.
“But hold on” I hear you say. “The flow of economic migrant and refugees has been cut to a trickle – at least those landing in Greece, since the EU negotiated a deal with Turkey.” Yes it did… indeed it did. However, the terms of the deal may be the same but both parties to the deal have changed quite dramatically this past year. As well as Brexit a flurry of serious terrorist incidents throughout Europe have pushed opinions further towards the intolerance of far right nationalism. While in Turkey, after a failed coup attempt in July and the subsequent imposition of a State of Emergency the already polarized population have been pushed even further into an atmosphere of fear and distrust. Any ideas of a free media have all but been snuffed out with many government critical media outlets shut down and replaced with a hard core of government supporting TV and Newspapers now quick to label almost any form of dissent or disagreement with the ruling AKP party as either sympathy for the coup plotters or supporting terrorism.
Photo by Kuwait-Ra’ed Qutena
It hasn’t always been like this. Looking back to the heady days when the EU announced it would be opening various membership accession chapters with Turkey way back in December 2004, it is hard to believe how much things have changed. I remember back then there was a definite belief that Turkey would be a full member of the EU if not before the end of the decade certainly within 10 years at the latest. For myself having lived in the country for a while and understanding what they call the Turkish Mentality which ensured that most things, like business thinking, logic and cultural expectations are very different from those in Western Europe, I was perhaps less optimistic about those prospects. After all important core issues had to be addressed. Health and Safety – while existing in various laws always felt like it was optional. The culture of corruption was pretty much endemic and a stricter enforcement of other laws may have also prevented such things as the unchecked bribe & corruption fest that permeated much of the property boom and bust from 2006 onwards and resulted in a catastrophe for many foreign buyers, too many of whom ended up losing their life savings. To try and shed light on the through the looking glass way people sometimes think and operate here I have expanded a little more on the property boom* below in a footnote.
Today the Migrant Agreement is looking more and more like a train wreck in slow motion. Too many European leaders know already that giving Turks visa free travel this year is becoming less and less likely. But few will admit it in public in the hope that Turkey will continue to hold back the flood waters of desperate people, at least until the winter, when the cooler weather and even colder Aegean sea will deter many (but not all) migrants from sailing from Turkey to Greece. As too often is the case the attitude is do little and wait for something to come along or for someone else to come up with an idea. However, there is also a misguided belief that Turkey will still do anything asked of it and jump through any hoop offered to it just to get membership of the EU. That old belief founded on the willingness of a very different type of Turkish government to comply and join at all costs is now totally obsolete.
Photo by David Cameron Paisley
Looking back ten years or so to a time when a free media still existed and there wasn’t the current toxic polarisation, where people seem to either adore or despise the ruling elite, the Turks had a definite appetite to become Europeans. But so much has changed since then, even from just a year ago when the 50% to 60% of citizens who do not share the values and vision of the evermore dictatorial government could at least find an unbiased opinion on one of the rapidly shrinking number of TV channels or newspapers still willing to criticise or question the governments policies. However, that has all changed so much in the past few months that many people have stopped watching TV news programs or reading newspapers all together and instead now get their news from the internet. But what if you are not on-line or don’t possess the education to question the bias of what you are told?
After returning from a trip to the UK last month I switched on my TV and scanned the channels. In my satellite system there is a block of about 15 channels together that are mainly news type channels. The President was speaking live somewhere so as usual I expected some of these channels to show his speech. Last year, when there were actually more news channels, perhaps 4 or 5 may have carried his words live. However as I flicked through I came across no less than 11 of those channels carrying his speech. Although half way through I did come to another politician speaking into a microphone and understood from a graphic that he was someone from the opposition CHP party. Although as he spoke, quite mysteriously there was no sound being transmitted by that channel. The surreal atmosphere continued later when a flurry of talking heads on most of those channel that carried the speech began dissecting what had been said with barely a single note of dissent.
It is no secret that many channels have now been removed or closed down on the orders of Judges. However, many of the vacant slots now seem to have been turned over to religious channels. For instance just beyond France24 news, where a couple of kids channels used to broadcast there is one live channel that shows little more than pilgrims circling the Ka’ba in Mecca and the next channel along seems to be a constant loop of sermons, in Arabic, from inside the grand mosque in Mecca.
Why have I said all this? Mainly to illustrate that what many European leaders know about the Turkish people or think they once knew has changed quite dramatically from just a few years ago. It is also as a warning to those who think they can renege on the deal struck with Turkey with no consequences. My own belief is that given a vote to join or not join the EU tomorrow the result might be a resounding No. Long before the Brexit vote people were openly questioning whether Turkey would gain any benefit from membership. Now the government leaning media machine asks little else, when doubts about Turks getting visa free travel are regularly raised. Of course many of those in power know that an ever more dictatorial rule is unlikely to lead to EU membership and that they would need to roll back many of their clampdowns on freedom and human rights to finally join. So while visa free travel (if ever delivered) would be welcome by many its failure to arrive could be used as a blunt tool by some to push the prospect of EU membership further away.
Photo by Howard Stanbury
Ultimately, when the flames of nationalism are fanned in any country it is usually at the expense of the rule of law. The only winners of any great leap backwards away from the democratic freedoms enjoyed in most of Europe are often the ruling elite who are too often tempted to use it as an excuse to further strengthen their iron grip on power. However the only sure winner if Turkey’s deal with the EU unravels will of course be Vladimir Putin, whose ever more murderous partnership with the Assad regime in Syria ensures that the deluge of Syrian refugees and other migrants crossing to Greece will continue to destabilise Europe for some time to come. Furthermore the collapse of the agreement may also make Putin’s ultimate dream come true if it proves to be the death knell of the European Union and triggers a return for all of us to the volatile and dark nationalistic politics of the early 20th Century.
* The property boom that followed the relaxation of laws that would allow foreigners to buy in Turkey is now looked back on as a golden age of rip off. A legion of dodgy building contractors built substandard properties, which often bore little more than a passing resemblance to the property they had signed up for. However the worst of these crooks used planning and ownership laws, particularly the rights of Tapu (deeds) owners, which were far too often undermined during the archaic, cumbersome and frequently bribe-loaded process where every foreign owner had to seek military permission to buy any property in Turkey. During that vacuum of 3 to 9 months waiting for permission after paying sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds or euros for your properties, some contractors… no not just some, far, far too many sold on properties someone had already paid them for and in some instances not just once, but twice or even three times. Many of these crooks didn’t even sell on the Tapu’s but simply gave them away in lieu of payment for an electricians labour or the carpenters hours or simply to pay off any outstanding bills for materials they didn’t fancy paying for. In many instances these deeds where ultimately given away for as little as the equivalent of a few hundred pounds or euros.
So you can imagine the surprise and horror of the buyer returning in the spring to find not only that the apartment or house they had bought and held the key for was now locked with a padlock because the electrician or window fitter, who now had their name on the Tapu, had broken the door lock and moved in themselves or simply rented out the place. Add to this the almost farcical situation that the law did very little to protect them and it was always going to become a crook’s bonanza. In Turkey the Tapu’s ownership was and still is everything, with the courts the only recourse for owners, who all wrongly believed that common sense or common law, would somehow prevail in the end and return their property to them. Almost without exception the foreigner buyer would find out that the individuals concerned or the companies, who had mostly by then, been conveniently wound-up or declared bankrupt, could do nothing to retrieve the Tapu after it had been transferred into someone else’s name. This hard fact was compounded even further by a legion of dishonourable lawyers taking on these pointless but very long and lucrative cases, they knew to be virtually unwinnable.