20th Oct 2020

Keep religion out of Turkey dispute, Germany says

  • German deputy foreign minister Michael Roth (r) (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Germany has urged right-wing EU politicians to keep religion out of talks on Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean territorial dispute.

"There's one criticism of Turkey I won't accept and that is when you say religion should weigh in our judgement of Turkey," Germany's EU affairs minister Michael Roth said in the European Parliament (EP) on Tuesday (15 September).

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"We [the EU] are a community based on freedom of religion. We are not the exclusive club of one religion," he said.

"Here in the EU there are millions of people of Muslim faith, who are our fellow citizens," he added.

The "rhetorical spiral of escalation" on Turkey was unhelpful in general, Roth also said.

A German Green MEP, Sergey Lagodinsky, voiced similar caution.

"We should stop talking about empires. We're not in Ottoman times and we're not in the times of the [Holy] Roman Empire", he said on Tuesday.

There were "nationalist shouting matches" on "both sides" of the dispute, he warned.

They spoke after several right-wing and far-right MEPs used inflammatory language.

"Turkey has never been a European state and will never be one," Bulgarian right-wing MEP Angel Dzhambazki said.

Turkey's recent conversion of Hagia Sophia, a former Christian church and museum in Istanbul, into a mosque was described as an affront to Europe.

Turkey was "waging a war on Christianity" for Italian far-right MEP Isabella Tovaglieri.

It was an "Asian country" and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was an "oriental despot", Austrian far-right MEP Roman Haider said.

The debate reflected the rise of Islamophobia both in the EP and at national level in Europe in recent years.

The Greek deputy foreign minister, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, from the centre-right, also made much of Hagia Sophia in the EP last week when trying to whip up support.

"He [Erdoğan] is trying to cultivate a populist, nationalist, and Islamic front and we should never forget that," Varvitsiotis said.

And on the other side, Erdoğan and his ministers often used religious and nationalist language in domestic speeches on Europe.

The EP debate came ahead of a special EU summit, due in 10 days' time, on Turkish naval incursions into Cypriot and Greek-claimed waters in the eastern Mediterranean.

MEPs from all sides called on Roth and Borrell to impose sweeping sanctions.

Ideas included ending Turkey's EU accession process, stopping financial assistance, imposing economic sanctions, an arms embargo, and blacklisting Erdoğan's government.

For his part, the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, also spoke of Turkish imperialism.

"Europe is facing a situation in which we can say that the old empires are coming back, at least three of them: Russia, China, and Turkey; big empires of the past who are coming back with an approach on their immediate neighbourhood," he said.

And the EU was facing a "watershed moment in history" in its Turkey relations, he added.

The other Turkey

But Europe had to account for Erdoğan's help in controlling migration when deciding which steps to take, Roth and Borrell noted.

The money the EU had spent on helping Turkey take care of 4 million mostly Syrian refugees on Turkish territory was "good money that's well invested and we don't need to be ashamed of that," Roth said.

"It's going to be difficult to believe that we can solve the migration flows without the help of Turkey, both at the eastern Mediterranean and now with the Libyan crisis," Borrell also said, after Turkey sent troops to Libya earlier this year.

And there was more to Turkey than its current regime, Roth and Borrell added, auguring a less belligerent approach at the upcoming EU leaders' talks.

"Turkey doesn't consist of Mr Erdoğan alone. There's a critical civil society burgeoning in Turkey, which looks to the European Union. It's a divided society," Roth said.

"A large majority of [Turkey's] population embrace our values and look to the European Union as a societal model," Borrell said.

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