Spain’s ‘enhancing ties with Turkey’ can only serve to strengthen Erdoğan’s oppressive rule

Amid its ever-deepening foreign policy mess that has alienated the entire political establishment in Washington D.C, raised the tension in Eastern Mediterranean, and sanctions against it across the Atlantic, Turkey’s troubled government seems to have found a useful ally for its continuity: Spain.

If the process of this rapprochement - which is a visible counter-dynamic to what the main bulk of the E.U members regard Erdoğan’s Turkey as - continues according to the wishes of Ankara, it will not only weaken further the influence of European institutions (including the European Court of Human Rights), but also must be seen as a harbinger for an apparent conflict of interests with NATO and the U.S.A.

While Ankara is preparing for arm wrestling and a possible thorny cold war with the Biden administration, as well as an E.U sanctions regime looming in March, leaders of Turkey and Spain were busy in the past weeks, engaging in a diplomacy flourished with terms like “positive agenda”, “constructive stance” and - even - “strategic partnership”. No wonder why eyebrows are raised in various circles that realistically and critically observe the harmful demise of the Erdoğan government.

Indeed, Spain’s deviant attitude, distanced from Brussel’s utterly cautious stance vis a vis Ankara, is striking. On January 18, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared that he wants to enhance ties with Turkey, which he called “a strategic partner of the European Union and a NATO ally.” An “intergovernmental summit” will also be held this year, he added.

The fact of the matter is, that there is not much of a “strategic partnership” between Turkey and the E.U left to speak of. Given what many observers see as an acrimonious display of expansionist agenda, the Erdoğan government’s deployment of a “militarized foreign policy” against Greece and Cyprus (both E.U members like Spain), makes such heavyweight terms utterly redundant. It was not a surprise that when Turkey engaged in naval seismic reasearch activities in Greek and Cypriot territorial waters, it quickly turned into a crisis between Turkey and the E.U.

“Strategic partnership” under normal circumstances requires a full package of agreements, and a common understanding, between the parts - on the entire spectrum of relations. A part which questions and challenges the territorial integrity of the other is not a “strategic partner”, but at best, only a transactional one. If anything, Turkey exists as such for the E.U, especially on the issues such as refugees and a battle against the COVID-19.

So one must speak of a mutual tactical approach rather than “strategy”, and similar ornate rhetoric between Madrid and Ankara.

It was clear that what defined Spain’s dissenting attitude from many other members, when the sanctions against Erdoğan’s government was debated at the E.U Summit last December, was mainly due to its deep financial concerns - Madrid has high stakes (and risks) through its investments in Turkey. A possible collapse the of the Turkish economy -as a result of Erdoğan’s erratic policies - is, understandably sending chills down the spines of some E.U member countries.

Erdoğan, in a constant existential battle to cling to power, knows this aspect very well. Resolutely engaged in what the European Council President Charles Michel recently called a “cat-and-mouse-game” with the E.U, the Turkish president thrives on pinching the vulnerable “nerve endings” of the bloc- such as the fear of a refugee influx or an economic meltdown.

Like an X-ray device, he has seen through the weaknesses within the E.U which gives him possibilities to drive wedges between it’s members. Up to now, it can be said that his “divide and rule” policies has worked in favour of his power. He has taken every gesture of appeasement as a concession to be abused, and enjoyed its results, which only extended his oppressive rule. The remarkable delay of the E.U in responding to the case of Erdoğan’s appointment of a lackey as the president of Bosporus University, prompting a massive unrest among students and their unlawful arrests, was utterly striking in this case.

Erdoğan and his partner, Devlet Bahçeli, not only openly criminalize the students, and incite violence against them, but also demonize the entire LGTBQ+ community in Turkey. Despite the sensitivity on both issues, Brussels remained silent for days. Also, when a court extended the detention of Osman Kavala, one of the most ardent supporters of Turkey’s E.U accession process as a civil society activist, the reactions remained nothing more than a blip.

That Erdoğan’s top diplomat, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, recently sang full praises for the Sanchez government should be seen in this wide context. Ankara is constantly busy seeking and successfully finding new “accomplices”.

Recently, in an article for La Razon, titled “Spain and Turkey: Mediterranean allies and partners”, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey-Spain relations have now reached an “ideal level”. Regarding economic relations, he pointed out that the two countries aim to increase their bilateral trade to 20 billion euros (about $24.5 billion) from its current level of 13 billion euros. Further on, on January 20, he met with Spain's Ambassador Francisco Javier Hergueta and a top official from a state-owned Spanish engineering firm, Navantia.

"We discussed our cooperation in the defense industry with Spain's Ambassador Hergueta and Pablo Menendez, the Eastern Mediterranean General Manager of Navantia Company, which provides design support to TCG Anadolu," Cavusoglu said on Twitter, referring to a new Turkish naval ship.

Navantia is responsible for designing and constructing the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship. It will be able to transport a force the size of a minimum battalion without needing home base support, according to Turkey's Presidency of Defense Industries. It can carry four mechanized, two air-cushioned and two personnel landing vehicles as well as aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles. The ship, spanning 231 meters (758 feet) long and 32 m (105 ft.) wide, will have a full load displacement of about 27,000 tons, according to Anadolu Agency.

Will the ship be engaged in combat against the E.U members, if things eventually turn sour in the Aegean? We can only ask such questions, and perhaps receive only mumblings as responses. But the issue must certainly be seen in much broader context.

First, it is apparent that in the “satisfaction” expressed by the Erdoğan government, something is not right.

Why Çavuşoğlu is enthusiastic about the Spanish approach is telling enough: The longer the E.U remains divided about his government, the longer it may continue to rule. Turkey’s foreign minister also knows very well that Erdoğan’s proposal to Brussels of assembling a “Mediterranean Conference” - which the E.U seems to have in principle accepted - will be a non-starter. How will it go ahead with Turkey which does not officially recognize Cyprus? So, in a nutshell, each and every move, if backed by any E.U member, is regarded as a successful tactical move, by Ankara.

Seen from a higher altitude, what casts a dark shadow over the recent Spanish “warming up” to Erdoğan’s government has to do with the principles and values of the E.U, moral pillars of any democracy vis-a-vis autocracy and, it should not come as a suprise, with the memory of Spain.

Ever since the attempted coup and the following state of emergency, Erdoğan failed to fulfill his ancient pledge to establishing democracy; on the contrary, the country is a de-jure “super-presidency” or in other words, “one man rule”, following the referendum in 2017. Since then the separation of powers and the rule of law collapsed entirely. Media, academia and the judiciary have been “seized” almost entirely by the government. In the past five years, the country has turned practically into a slaughterhouse of justice.

In his latest report by Carnegie Europe, Marc Pierini, a former ambassador of the E.U to Turkey, reminds us of what he calls “the dimensions of a massive and seemingly endless purge.”

“Around 150,000 civil servants have been fired, while some 70,000 others remain detained, many without any indictment. Among thousands of others, the baseless detentions of the journalists and authors Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, the Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, the journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, and the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala illustrate the fundamental rift between Turkey and its Western partners. These cases are clear violations of Ankara’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.”

According to a fresh report by Sezgin Tanrıkulu, an MP of the main opposition party People’s Republican Party (CHP), 1,855 citizens were tortured in police custody and the prisons in 2020, bringing the total of the since the beginning of AKP’s tenure in 2002 to 27,493 citizens.

The most recent Bosporus University “seizure case”, accompanied by an open declaration of war against the LGBTQ+ community, should be a reminder that ever since the attempted coup, nearly 9 thousand academicians were fired from their jobs, with hundreds of them having to leave Turkey to seek jobs elsewhere.

These findings per se are telling enough of how problematic, ethically and morally, the official Spanish “warming up” to an oppressive regime is. That it is driven by a government of the Socialist Party, raises eyebrows. It only adds salt to the wound felt by large chunks of Turkish society, Turks and Kurds alike, who dissent and despise Erdoğan’s massive abuse of power, which has left Turkey in solitude internationally and in systemic crisis domestically.

I can’t help but remember how the Spanish socialists raised the flag of democracy in late 1970’s and 80’s, which I as a young journalist had followed closely, in envy. Sanchez can take it for granted, that I as an exiled journalist give voice to many in Turkey, when I see through the ethical questions current Spanish-Turkish relations raise.

On the other hand, we shall see the tide turning soon when the Biden administration will unleash new dynamics to promote human rights and democracy, especially in Turkey - a change of attitude that will require a tougher stance within the EU against all forms of oppression and injustice. We are already seeing strong signs of a sea change in terms of not tolerating such a massive oppression. Biden will find many strong allies within the EU to change the language into deeds.

I wonder if Sanchez government is prepared for the change that’s a coming. To be on the rights side of history is a duty for any democracy, based on principles.

Spain, out of its painful past that ended not so long ago, should never deceive its memory. It has to choose to be on the side of the people of Turkey or the clique that rules over it. Democrats in Turkey, I am rather sure, want to remain hopeful that, the ever-dynamic segments of the Spanish society - Left, Women and the LGBTQ+ community - may be willing to say a word or two to their government.