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Harsh Turkish Political Language Getting the Red Card in Europe

Turkish politicians are finding out the hard way that the language they use at home to win populist applause is unacceptable in the European arena.
Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis talks during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul June 26, 2012. Turkey expects France to unblock talks that are essential if it is ever to join the European Union, now that Socialist President Francois Hollande has replaced Nicolas Sarkozy who was outspoken in opposing the Muslim country's bid to join the bloc. Picture taken June 26, 2012. To match Interview TURKEY-EU/ REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3483U

Turkish politicians are learning the hard way that the harsh language they generally use at home is not only unacceptable in European forums but it is also hurting Turkey’s political standing in the international scene.

Turkish leaders have progressively been using harsh language against their opponents, both in their parliamentary speeches and in the rally squares to keep the domestic political scene simmering. However, in recent months they have started to adopt this attitude at European forums or in their dealings with other European governments, and they have been strongly rebuffed.

The latest example were remarks by minister for European Union Affairs and chief negotiator in accession talks with the EU Egemen Bagis, who irked the Germans when he said that if Chancellor Angela Merkel continues her negative stance against Turkey’s EU membership, she, too, will be sent fishing as a retired politician in the same way former French President Nicholas Sarkozy who vehemently opposed Turkish membership in the EU and eventually lost the elections in 2012. Bagis made the comments at the Golden Horn Congress Center during the Istanbul TV Forum on June 20. His remarks were televised live.

Bagis was reacting to news on June 20 that EU member states had failed to reach the necessary consensus when Germany and the Netherlands voiced reservations on opening a new negotiating chapter with Turkey which could have marked an upswing in ties.

Bagis also charged that Merkel’s reluctance was linked to her “election campaign.” German spokesman Andreas Peschke said Bagis' remarks were unacceptable. "These remarks were met with great disbelief here. We will make our position abundantly clear," Peschke said. Subsequently, the Turkish ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for an explanation.

On June 21, Bagis released a statement saying Turkey was "disappointed" by Berlin's attitude and "regretted" its move to summon the envoy.

"We have been disappointed by Germany's stance of preventing the opening of this chapter to the negotiations. We feel that our sincerity makes it necessary for us to express our disappointment.

"We also regret to note the intolerance and misinterpretation of our sincere reminders by our German friends, who unfairly criticize Turkey regarding the freedom of expression," the statement read.

Later, Bagis went as far as to threaten Merkel with economic repercussions, saying, “I hope she corrects the mistake she has made … or this will lead to reactions. Merkel should consider the interests of some 4,000 German businesses in Turkey." Bagis was answering questions of reporters on June 22 in the Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul after attending the opening of an association.

Bagis was clearly unrepentant, and he seemed to think his statements would make the Germans think twice before they antagonized Turkey. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had to intervene and calm the Germans. Davutoglu told Al-Monitor on June 25 that he spoke on the phone with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on June 24 and managed to convince him to put aside Bagis' remarks. The Germans eventually withdrew their objections to open a new chapter in the EU full membership negotiations with Turkey. 

Sami Kohen, Turkey’s dean of foreign policy commentators, told Al Monitor that Bagis' attitude and his language is counterproductive and shows that the general trend of strong language in Turkey is creating problems for Turkish politicians in the international scene.

Kohen said Turkish politicians have to learn that what is important in Europe is arguments and not insults and threats. “If you insult people and use foul language, you will lose on two accounts. First you will not be able to persuade your counterpart, and second you will create an unwanted reaction.”

Kohen said that there are those who are hesitant on Turkish membership in the EU, and when a minister performs as in the Bagis-Merkel case one only gives ammunition to those who oppose Turkey’s vocation in Europe. “Such examples only serve Turkey’s opponents in Europe who say ‘we told you so, these people do not fit our norms and our culture, they have no place among us.'”

Kohen said the language used in the rally squares to win populist applause cannot be used in the diplomatic arena.

He further stressed that the opposition in Turkey also suffered from the same ills. He pointed out that main opposition leader and Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu was rebuffed at the European Parliament on June 16 for comparing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Kilicdaroglu called Erdogan a “murderer” and likened him to Assad.

Hannes Swoboda, the vice-president of the socialist group in the European Parliament harshly criticized Kilicdaroglu and canceled a scheduled meeting.

"You cannot make statements that are totally against the spirit of the house [the host's venue]," Swoboda told the English language daily Today's Zaman in an interview after he canceled the meeting.

Swoboda also responded to Kilicdaroglu during a press conference and said he cannot agree with Kilicdaroglu, noting that although Erdogan's policies could be legitimately criticized, he cannot be compared to Assad who is waging a war against and terrorizing the people of Syria.

Swoboda described the comparison between Assad and Erdogan as unacceptable. “One is a bloody dictator, and I made it clear that you sometimes need to talk to bloody dictators to save human lives. So you cannot compare Erdogan with Assad. If you do it in Turkey, it is not my business; I would say it is not very clever. But if it is done in my house, so to speak, in front of the posters of my political group, it is totally unacceptable," he added.

Professor Dogu Ergil, a social scientist, said Turkish politicians have forgotten the European political norms and finesse. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ergil said that over the years Turkish politicians have developed bad habits like seeing themselves in a giant mirror and talking with the language of the state and abandoning the fact that politics is the art of compromise.

He also said "village type people" have been dominating the political scene and are using language that befits their social background. Thus, while they can steer the Turkish people in the rally squares with their language they are out of place in the European arena.

Ergil said Turkey has many educated and sophisticated people but they shy away from politics. "They have to be encouraged to enter politics and make an impact," he explained.

Recent street protests in Turkey have also shown that Turkish leaders have not abandoned their old habit of accusing foreign countries for their shortcomings. They are talking about a US and European conspiracy to halt Turkey’s impressive progress in recent years. This, too, does not go down well in Washington and in other European capitals.

İlnur Cevik served as the editor-in-chief of the Turkish Daily News, which later became the Hurriyet Daily News, between 1983 and 2004. He also published The New Anatolian and currently hosts a news program "Echoes From the World" on Turkish TV Channel A. He served as the special advisor to former prime minister Suleyman Demirel between 1991 and 1993 and late prime minister Necmettin Erbakan between 1994 and 1997 on foreign policy and the Kurdish issue. On Twitter: @ilnurcevik