Stabbed in the back: that must be how the European Union would feel these days if it were a person — quite like Julius Caesar in his last moments.
Managing the coronavirus crisis was not exactly a cup of tea for the EU, but the most recent troubles came from Hungary’s recent legislation, which has created a presidential system for the country that is not unlike that of Turkey.
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. As long as the new legislation is in effect, Parliament is suspended and no elections may be held. That sounds very familiar as far Turkey is concerned: quite reminiscent of the “Turkish style presidency” that has been in effect since 2018.
But there is more to Hungary’s new legislative framework. Two new types of crimes are created:
First, publicizing “false and distorted facts interfering with successful protection of the public, or alarming/agitating the public” may be punished with up to five years in prison.
Secondly, those who “interfere with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order” could face a prison sentence up to five years; if any death occurs as a result of the “interference,” the sentence is increased to eight years.
Many governments around the world took unprecedented emergency measures, so for anyone unfamiliar with Hungary, the “COVID-19 Bill” may seem to be just another such measure. But to put it mildly, Hungary does not exactly have the greatest record when it comes to freedoms and rights since 2010, when the Fidesz government led by Orbán assumed power.
What’s more, Hungary went far ahead of any other state in the world to implement such a sweeping, comprehensive and lasting systemic transformation.
The aforementioned two new crimes would be permanent changes to the criminal code and would stay emblazoned in the Hungarian legal system for good. However, the introduction of the two new crimes may just be the beginning: as separation of powers evaporate in Hungary through this legislation of this bill, “Koronadiktatúra” (Koronadictatorship) is not an out-of-place nickname for the new system.
According to the text of the bill, Orbán can now “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations, and implement additional extraordinary measures by degree.” So, the Fidesz government may shape Hungary in any way it wishes for decades to come — even if the COVID-19 virus becomes a distant memory.
Moreover, Hungary already has its COVID-19 epidemic under control. As of March 31, Hungary had 492 confirmed cases of coronavirus-positive patients and 16 people have passed away due to the viral infection. On March 27, a curfew was declared, under which residents of Hungary may only leave their premises for work or to run errands for basic needs. Only grocery, drug stores, and pharmacies may stay open. Those out will be required to keep one and a half meters apart, and those above 65 may only go out for shopping at food stores and pharmacies between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Gathering or going out as anything that resembles a group (more than a few people) is banned.
The curfew is to stay in place until April 11, but the new law can stay in place indefinitely until it is voted out. And Fidesz already has a two-thirds majority in Parliament; this is how the legislation was passed anyway. As there can be no elections under the “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law,” it is a vicious circle.
It may be easy to brush aside what is happening in Hungary, but Orbán is visionary in his own right indeed. He was talking about the “impending threat of migration” long before anyone else did, and after the 2015 refugee crisis, his rhetoric became mainstream across Europe, the U.S., and beyond.
Hence, the European Union has a reason to worry. The COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral, providing false hopes of stability and order in the face of chaos and crisis.
On Turkey’s side, there is renewed interest building up a new foreign policy front: not just with regards to the EU and but also the U.S., and even Israel. If there is a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, why not between the EU and Turkey?
Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who resigned yesterday, is referred to as the “architect of Turkey’s recent policy in Libya, and the Aegean and the Mediterranean.” Now that he is gone, there might be room for Ankara to maneuver and revise its Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean policies to win hearts (but maybe not minds) in Brussels.
Ankara’s newfound warmth towards the EU must have to do with its economic contraction and the foreign currency crisis Turkey is rolling into. Engaging with Europe for a possible bailout would be easier and more internally marketable than an agreement with the IMF. Will Turkey’s post-corona relations with the EU be substantially different than China’s pragmatic engagement with Europe?
The race for vaccine in the EU’s case does look like the race for the antidote nationalism, too.
The world stopped with the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis between Turkey and Greece did not. In other words, the Greece-Turkey conflict is immune to COVID-19: even the coronavirus cannot smother the seething cauldron that is the Ankara-Athens axis.
After the current coronavirus crisis even if returning back to “normal” begins, it seems that the rest of the world will be like the “delivery guys” for Europe. In the new “normal,” Turkey’s citizens or not, regardless of nationality, the only non-Europeans entering the gates of the EU will be transport personnel (like drivers), residency holders and some very selective cases of business or service providers for some time to come.
While various countries including Turkey are now embarking on “corona diplomacy,” China was the first to begin attempts to win hearts and minds with direly needed aid. Beijing was the first to extend a helping hand to European countries suffering the worst from the pandemic— Italy and Spain—and to the economically most fragile one, Greece.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.