Austria and Turkey’s Big Falling Out

Commentary by Kirsten WILLIAMS

Austria and Turkey have long endured a somewhat fractious relationship. As the seats of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, the nations were frequently at war with each other, vying for influence and power. The downfall of both dynasties came almost simultaneously, at the end of the First World War.

In the century since, the nations have formed uneasy alliances – on the right and wrong sides of history. In the 1970s, Austria hired thousands of Turkish workers to cope with the sudden economic upswing; those young men were later joined by their families to bring the total of Turks in present-day Austria to around 300,000. Meanwhile, 500,000 Austrians visit Turkey every year and vice versa.

Despite those clear links, Austria has consistently blocked Turkey’s accession to the European Union, provoking the ire of Ankara on numerous occasions. In recent weeks, however, rhetoric on both sides has escalated.

Minister-president Rutte  CC BY 2.0
President Erdogan, is a key but very controversial politician in the Western world – By Miniter-president Rutte, licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

It began with the failed coup attempt in Turkey. On 15th July, army units began to move through Istanbul, taking two bridges over the Bosphorus. Soldiers took hostages and broadcast the message that the army had taken over to restore constitutional order. By daybreak, the coup was over and the massive crackdown began. Thousands were arrested. Amnesty International reported evidence of rape, beatings and other human rights abuses. Reacting to Erdoğan’s brutal and sudden repression, Chancellor Christian Kern said that negotiations between Brussels and Ankara were now simply ‘diplomatic fiction’.

Unsurprisingly, his remarks were received badly in Turkey. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, called Vienna ‘the capital city of radical racism’. His Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz retaliated by saying that the refugee agreement between Turkey and the EU had failed. Days later, Kurz announced that he would veto any progressions in EU accession talks, arguing that the criteria for visa liberalisation had not been met.

Turkey is an unpredictable but important buffer between Europe and the Middle Eastern crisis. European leaders have consistently found themselves between a rock and a hard place in attempting to remain true to EU values while at the same time keeping the pragmatic if controversial migrant deal alive. Austrian provocations could be seriously damaging to the future of the agreement, but Kurz and Kern are not alone. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, called the post-coup repression ‘unacceptable’. The foreign ministers of Germany, perhaps Turkey’s strongest link to the EU, and Luxembourg, rejected the idea of vetoing new accession chapters for Turkey, but also criticised the likely reintroduction of the death penalty in the candidate country.

Erdoğan, too, is contributing to the unravelling of the delicate deal which allows for the EU to take in one Syrian national for each migrant returned to Turkey. Angered by the political flip-flopping, he is stepping up his threats to renege on the agreement. Simultaneously, he has made a careful half-apology for the shooting down of a Russian plane and only this week visited President Vladimir Putin in Russia. The rash remarks of Austrian politicians may have ushered in a new, strange geopolitical reality.

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