The European Union cannot do more than issue some half-hearted complaints on Turkey’s still on-going crackdown of the opposition, the press, or basically everyone whose loyalty to Erdogan is not 110% clear. We are witnessing the final steps of Turkey’s transformation from a basically democratic state into an autocracy: And, thanks to the refugee deal, there’s nothing we can do about it.
One key factor in assessing bargaining situations is the relationship between the two (or more) sides: is it symmetrical or does one side have the upper hand and, if so, to what extent? How far, if the latter is the case, can it go and press the other(s)? Power, as Max Weber famously put it, is the capacity to force someone else into doing things he or she would not do freely. Or, as the example of the relationship between the EU and Turkey shows, vice versa: Power can also mean that one side is forced to abstain from doing anything.
The refugee deal between the EU and Turkey has handed over the European keys to Erdogan, Europe’s biggest and most important bouncer. The hands of EU leaders are thus more or less tied, the EU needs him more than Erdogan needs the EU (at the moment at least). It cannot impose sanctions or use any other means of decisive diplomatic or economic pressure. It can not do much more than voice some criticism here and there or call on Turkey to adhere to human rights standards and the rule of law.
Erdogan has the upper hand. For one, because the EU is paying others to do the dirty work, ie using forcibly preventing people from crossing broders. In this sense, the restriction of press freedom in Turkey even plays into the hands of the EU: Out of sight, out of mind, no pictures of the Turkish borders nowhere. Secondly, there is no such thing as a European solution to the refugee crisis. Different members have different approaches and no agreement on which one to agree upon seems to be in sight. The refugee crisis has laid bare the EU’s institutional weaknesses and the lack of a common will among its members. Turkey has one voice, the EU speaks with several tongues.
As long as Europe fails to find alternatives to its dependence on Erdogan, the present situation will not change. Double standards, half-hearted critisicm. Little conversation, no action. A state is being transformed into an oppressive autocracy (regardless of the fact that Erdogan enjoys the number of a large portion of the population) before our very yes: Painful to watch.