In 2007, I interviewed Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his words then were precisely clear. “Turkey is determined to become a full member of the European Union,” he told me.
“In Europe, we find the harbinger of the possibility of the alliance of civilizations. Our goal is to become a responsible modern society, and we are a people who have totally internalized democracy.”
His voice rose in passion as he spoke of how far Turkey had come since he emerged upon the political stage 40 years ago: “This is a very different country today. It has become an open society.”
Virtually no one could have reasonably bet that Turkey’s future would not be inextricably tied to Europe, to the West, to America. Turkey was, and remains, the only Islamic country to be part of NATO, fighting alongside Germans, Dutch and Americans — and yet, it didn’t happen.
Not only has Turkey not joined the EU, but all those great expectations have fallen to dust. Most important, those historic tides have reversed themselves to the point that today it is President Erdogan’s Turkey “invading” the continent and treating Europe like a colonial area to be played with, rather than the other way around.
Turkey in the European Union today? Not a chance! Turkey’s vaunted secularism, imposed by the noble Turk-of-All-Turks, Kemal Ataturk, in the 1920s? All but dead.
This denouement of the great drama has been coming for a long time. But it was last Sunday, Easter Sunday, that confirmed the end, when President Erdogan won 51.4 percent of the vote in a referendum giving him total power over his 80 million people and allowing him to reign as a virtual dictator, probably until 2029.
As for now, he can retire to work in his extraordinary “house” in Ankara. It cost $600 million, has 1,100 rooms and, many analysts are saying, perfectly illustrates the arrogant narcissist Erdogan has become.
Sunday’s vote was the first time an essentially democratic state has voluntarily chosen to turn back to a form of dictatorship.
It was a victory of the pious Islamic countryside, villages and mosques against Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Antalya, the cities that voted against Erdogan. It was a vote in favor of Erdogan’s recent purging of some 130,000 civil servants, lawyers and public figures and his imprisoning of 40,000 he claimed were undermining him on behalf of Fethullah Gulen, a political/religious rival.
But when we look at Erdogan’s obsessive meddling in Europe, the entire picture becomes most bizarre and most involved with “getting even” with the EU.
The Turkish president used name-calling — the Netherlands was a “banana republic ... fascists ... latter-day Nazis.” He would not fulfill his deal to stop refugees fleeing to Europe through Turkey. He hated assimilation, but he loved spying. German officials said publicly that they had refused the Turkish government’s secret request to spy on its opponents in Germany or on Germany’s largest Muslim association, Ditib.
There are lessons of immigration here. When the first Turks came to Europe in 1961 as guest workers, no one expected them to stay, but they not only did, they also brought their families. They have not assimilated well, so there are many allegiances among them. This led the Europeans, fearful of a Muslim takeover, to pull back on Turkey’s joining the EU.
Last Sunday’s referendum gives Erdogan vast new license to chart his country’s future — and maybe parts of Europe’s, as well.