Turkey: aspiring to be part of the EU or tearing it apart?
Divide and rule, said the Romans — and from what was the fulcrum of the eastern Roman Empire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is applying this tactic perfectly. While it seems unlikely the country will ever be a member of the EU, Turkey has managed to split it in two, and made it completely irrelevant in the Balkans and dependent on the wishes of Ankara for concerns in the Levant.
The mantra of former premier Ahmet Davutoglu, who preached “zero problems with neighbors,” has been replaced with a foreign policy full of provocations to all its neighbors. But the preferred target is certainly Europe and hardly a week passes without some provocation that embarrasses the European chancelleries.
Let us start with the most striking case: Greece. How does Brussels respond to Erdogan’s visit to Athens, in December 2017, during which he proposed the revision of treaties and borders? For the EU, this is a taboo subject, not least because it is within its borders, but nobody dares to respond.
From that moment, there is a crescendo of trespassing by Turkish aircraft and ships in Hellenistic territory, which culminates in the death of a Greek pilot in a plane crash, and even a confrontation between the Greek prime minister's helicopter and Turkish military aircraft.
The European reaction? Total silence. Mind you, the EU has also been silent for years on the Turkish occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, a member of the Union, and if the Israeli prime minister had not mentioned it during one of the recent quarrels with Erdogan, the issue would be totally forgotten.
And what was the reaction of Rome and Brussels to the Turkish naval ships that prevented an Italian oil-platform ship from starting drilling work in the Cypriot marine fields? Retreat and silence.
Although no one says it, is clear that this line is dictated by Angela Merkel’s Germany, which has a difficult love-hate relationship with Erdogan. The love, albeit born of convenience, is stronger than the hate for at least three reasons: the commercial relationship between the nations, the great and influential German-Turkish community, and the fear that Ankara will open the borders to fresh masses of immigrants headed mostly to northern Europe.
While it seems unlikely Turkey will ever be a member of the EU, it has managed to split it in two, and made it completely irrelevant in the Balkans.
Germany’s soft approach to Turkey was for years shared by all of Europe but is now opposed by some of the countries closest to Berlin, including Austria and the Netherlands, who challenge the Turks to take advantage of the freedoms granted them in those countries.
Curiously, the first sign of a split over Turkey in the EU came in 2017 from Holland, the most tolerant country in the EU. For reasons of public security, it banned Turkish politicians from campaigning on Dutch soil. Erdogan’s reaction was very harsh and a diplomatic crisis followed. It resurfaced after the announcement of early elections in Turkey, when the Netherlands reiterated that it has banned all Turkish electoral events in the country.
The same position was soon taken by the new Austrian government, which looks with great intolerance at the Turkish expansion in the Balkans. Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that any Turkish campaigning was “not welcome and not allowed” because “the Turkish leadership under Erdogan has for years tried to instrumentalize communities of Turkish origin in Europe.”
Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik wrote on Twitter: “It is clear that the first ministers of Austria and the Netherlands are not leaning on democratic values. With this approach, they are helping to spread the racist political movements hostile to European Union values.”
In reality, however, in the clash with the Turks the EU’s anti-populist liberal-left has a champion in French President Macron. He attempted to engage Erdogan several times through direct dialogue but, after having “dared” to receive a delegation of Syrian Kurds in Paris, he was heavily criticized by the Turkish president. Will Macron, who seems to have a special relationship with Donald Trump, have discussed this topic with the US president?
The European embarrassment also stems from the fact that Turkey has always been viewed as a NATO bastion in the Middle East. As such, everyone is hoping that Trump, who initially had a good relationship with Erdogan, can encourage Ankara to talk and set aside the provocations.
It will not be easy, however, when even newspapers in Poland — which, due to hatred of the Russians, is historically pro-Turkish — are beginning to ask questions about “the loyalty of Turkey to NATO.” But Trump is no stranger to impossible missions and, in any case, he remains the only card left to play for an EU divided over everything and at the mercy of Turkish moods.
- Max Ferrari is a journalist and politician. He is a former parliamentary journalist, a war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and director of a TV channel. He is an expert in geopolitics and energy policy. Twitter: @MaxFerrari