The latest developments show that the Turkey-European Union (EU) deal on the refugee crisis is in limbo. On the one hand, the EU (through Merkel) seems to be standing firm regarding Turkey meeting all criteria (including the amendment of the anti-terror law) for the liberalization of visas for Turkish citizens. On the other hand, Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is relentless; he is unwilling to accept the amendment of the law under the pretext of Turkey’s need to fight the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Even though the definition of “terrorism” is so broad that actually allows the violation of freedom of speech and freedom of press since virtually anything could be deemed pro-terrorism propaganda. Academics, journalists and (Kurdish) MPs have already been prosecuted for this reason.
The heart of the matter is that unless one of the two parties backs down, the refugee deal will collapse. Greece – and other European states – would hate to see that happening, but it’s a real possibility given the stance of the EU and Turkey. Who is to benefit, who is to lose? Why would Erdogan maintain such a hard stance on the issue? Why would he not do something so simple such as amend a law in order to provide visa-free travel in Europe to his citizens. For a couple of reasons: a) the way the anti-terror law is drafted right now serves Erdogan’s broader goals domestically; that is, to drown any kind of opposition that goes against his plans for a presidential system and absolute political power by associating it with terrorism. And b) to keep the issue of terrorism as a priority, not least because of the PKK threat and the broader implications of terrorism for Turkey’s foreign relations and foreign policy goals.
A third, and perhaps less obvious, reason has to do with the inter-linkage between the Turkey-EU diplomacy and Turkey’s domestic political scene. From this perspective, it looks like Erdogan is playing a game on two levels that could be loosely associated with what Robert Putnam described as a “two-level game” – the first level being the domestic (national) political scene of a country and the second being international diplomacy. In a nutshell, Putnam’s concept refers to how a leader needs to balance between a positive outcome on the international diplomatic level and domestic pressures/interests (which may differ from what is discussed internationally) by pursuing an international agreement/outcome which would be acceptable by domestic stakeholders as well.
Erdogan is indeed playing a two-level game. However he is more concerned about how to use the outcome of the Turkey-EU bargain to manipulate the public towards achieving his own political goal (authoritarianism under the guise of presidentialism), and less concerned about whether the outcome of the Turkey-EU refugee deal will be acceptable by the body politic. There are two possible outcomes and he is aiming to render both of them acceptable by the public as well as beneficial for himself. Outcome 1: Neither the EU nor Turkey backs down and the deal fails. Outcome 2: Either Erdogan amends the anti-terror law or the EU retreats from its legal principles/requirements; visa restrictions get lifted for Turks within the Schengen Area and the refugee deal remains in effect. The latter outcome is less likely while it would be best for the EU not to back down from matters of principle because a bad precedent will be created and Turkey will most likely use it again in the future. Erdogan’s ultimate goal: To gather as much public support as possible for a snap election and/or a referendum either of which will be aiming at changing the political system into a presidential one. After all, Erdogan has already proved to be a master manipulator of public opinion.
In the scenario of outcome 2 Erdogan will praise his own efforts and explain to Turkish citizens how he managed to pull off something so historic as a visa-free deal with the EU; a deal that many Turks are waiting for eagerly since they have to go through a lot of trouble each time they want to travel to Europe. Thus, Erdogan would be the hero while the EU would probably be presented as the party that Erdogan had to face, struggle with and eventually won (something similar happened when Israel’s Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan in 2013 for the Mavi Marmar incident of 2010).
In the scenario of outcome 1 Erdogan will certainly play the blame game. He will blame the EU for inflexibility; lack of empathy and interest for the refugees and burdened Turkey; lack of understanding for the terrorist threat Turkey is faced with. He will probably also call it racist and intolerant for not granting visa-free travel to Turks. He will press all the right buttons so that a big portion (the necessary portion) of Turkish public opinion sees the EU as an uncooperative enemy and Turkey as the victim. Thus, Erdogan will mobilize support in the way that he knows best: by creating enemies, “othering” and polarizing. It will not be hard to appeal to his conservative – and largely anti-western – electoral base or to a big percentage of nationalists who are equally anti-western.
There you have it: Erdogan’s two-level game. A game, that for him is primarily of domestic importance and associated with his grandiose political future.