Plea: more Realpolitik in relation to Turkey

It took them a year and a half – much longer than usual. When drafting it, says former top diplomat Henne Schuwer, “wild debates” were held. But on Tuesday the report of the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) will finally be published on Turkey, a country with which the Netherlands has a complicated relationship – if only because of the increasing violations of human rights under President Erdogan.

The AIV does not want to ignore the deplorable state of the Turkish constitutional state, but in its advice to the government makes a passionate plea for more Realpolitik: a complicated dilemma that the AIV has tried to summarize under the motto ‘principal transactionalism’. According to the AIV, the Netherlands must stick to its principles, but at the same time must try to conclude deals with Ankara. “We have looked at Turkey for a long time through the lens of human rights,” says Henne Schuwer in a cafe in The Hague. “But the bottom line is: this country is so important for the Netherlands and Europe that we cannot ignore it.”

New realism

The AIV’s new realism is based on an earlier advisory report on human rights issued last June. In it, the AIV notes that the international human rights system is coming under increasing pressure from the rise of autocratic regimes (such as Erdogan’s). The standards and values ​​in Moscow or Beijing now differ so much from those in the Netherlands that traditional dialogue on human rights makes little sense, says the AIV.

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“The human rights report has given us the opportunity to write our Turkey advice,” says Schuwer. An advice in which not only Western moral indignation is taken into account, but also in which attention is paid to Turkish feelings of misjudgment. During talks in Istanbul and Ankara, the committee noticed that there is great dissatisfaction. “Turkey is hosting 3.5 to 4 million Syrian refugees,” says Schuwer. “There are 650,000 Syrian children going to Turkish schools. They sleep in the grass with us in Ter Apel.”

In recent years, Turkey’s relations with the Netherlands and the West have soured at a rapid pace. When the Americans refused to share missile technology, Turkey — a NATO member since 1952 — bought Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft defense system in 2017, after which Washington threw the country out of the F-35 project. In the same year, the Dutch government had the Turkish Minister of Family Affairs detain Sayan Kaya with a great display of power because – despite a ban from The Hague – she wanted to campaign for an election among Turks in Rotterdam. In the relationship with Turkey, Schuwer says, there are certain problems that crop up again and again: the near-state-of-war with Greece, the Kurdish question, Turkey’s frustrations with the lack of prospects of EU membership, the Turkish accusations of European ‘Islamophobia’.

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However, the West cannot afford to alienate Turkey, the AIV argues, because the country’s strategic importance on the Bosphorus is immense: as a guarantor of security on NATO’s ‘south flank’, as a springboard for refugees fleeing Europe. want to reach. The 2015 refugee crisis could only be contained after a contentious deal with Erdogan. When the last Americans left Afghanistan in August 2021, it was Turkish soldiers who kept Kabul airport open to air traffic. It was thanks to Erdogan’s efforts that Moscow this spring agreed to an agreement that would allow the resumption of grain exports from Ukrainian ports. “Of course Erdogan has an outrageous human rights policy,” Schuwer said. “But the cabinet asked us to look at geopolitics. Then I say: look where Turkey is on the map.”

How much water can go with the wine? While the West announces round after round of sanctions against Russia because of the war in Ukraine, Turkey trades heavily with Moscow and until recently Russian payment cards were accepted there. When Finland and Sweden announced their intention to join NATO, Erdogan demanded that both countries extradite Kurdish dissidents to Ankara – otherwise he would veto. Erdogan blackmailing NATO: Putin couldn’t make it better for him.

With regard to Russia, too, the West has long tried to strike a balance between carrot and stick – resulting in the largest European war since 1945. Russia and Turkey are incomparable greats, Schuwer says decisively. “But I admit right away: in the case of Russia, we should have acted much harder.”