The spectacle of Turkey being feted as a European ally during meetings over the refugee crisis in Brussels on Monday was cynical – if not entirely perverse. Mere days earlier, the Turkish state had brazenly shuttered a critical newspaper, Zaman, and dismissed its senior staff. On the very day Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was welcomed to Brussels, the paper was relaunched with a series of positive articles about the Turkish government.
It has now been revealed that in return for taking back refugees that have crossed from Turkey to Greece, Turkey will benefit from a lifting of visa requirements for Turkish nationals in the EU, paving the way, some argue, for its long-coveted membership of the EU. Erdogan must have allowed himself a wry smile that as he reaches his dictatorial pinnacle in his war on critics and the free press, Europe was laying out the red carpet for Davutoglu.
But perhaps that says more about Europe's desperation that it has fallen into the arms of Turkey's increasingly despotic president. Turkey, home to 2.6 million Syrians, has to be part of the solution to the Syrian refugee crisis – but we should not forget that its hands are hardly clean when it comes to Syria's bloody war. Turkey tolerated the militias that became Islamic State (Isis) and the world is reaping the results of that today.
And let us not forget that as we talk about Turkey finally being accepted into the EU fold, the country continues its barbaric onslaught of Kurdish cities. The pictures that have emerged from the town of Cizre recall images of Gaza or Aleppo, destruction wrought by relentless shelling that has gone largely unreported. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to undermine the Syrian Kurds that present one of the few fighting forces capable of beating IS.
Erdogan did not manage to secure the majority in last year's elections that would have allowed him to change the constitution and increase his own power, largely due to the turnout for Turkey's Kurdish HDP, but that has not prevented the Turkish president from flexing his muscles. It was reported recently that since 2014 a total of 1,845 cases have been opened against those accused of insulting the presidency.
Meanwhile last month Turkey's constitutional court demanded that two Turkish journalists jailed on spurious charges of 'revealing state secrets' be released from jail. The reporters had revealed that Turkey had smuggled guns to rebels in Syria after acquiring footage of the weapons shipment, which the government denied. The journalists remain on trial, with prosecution calling for life sentences.
Turkey is now ranked 149 out of 180 countries on the press freedom list compiled by Reporters without Borders.
EU foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini said Monday (7 March) that Turkey must "respect the highest standards when it comes to democracy, rule of law fundamental freedoms starting from the freedom of expression". But these are hollow words – and EU leaders know it. Erdogan will be emboldened – not to mention more than €3bn better off – by Turkey's new role in solving the refugee crisis.
Erdogan will feel that he has got away with it – and he would be right, he has.