Many quarters in Europe found it hard to take Turkey’s “Happy Europe Day” greetings seriously this year. As numerous commentaries in the European press have observed, Turkey has never been so far from Brussels as it is today under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But even as he reminded Europeans (fawningly in the opinion of some Turkish opposition members, cynically according to others) how his country had celebrated the occasion since 1999, which was when Turkey was accepted as a candidate for EU membership, the Turkish autocrat knew that accession would never happen as long as he remained in power.
Indeed, the climate between Ankara and major European capitals has never been so toxic. Erdogan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar were probably not exaggerating when they said the EU’s warning to Europeans to avoid travel to Turkey had less to do with the Covid-19 pandemic than it did with politics.
The same day that the EU issued its list of Covid-related travel restrictions into the EU, Bundestag member Michael Brand urged a travel warning to Turkey for other reasons.
Responding to the latest in a series of trials against human rights activists, lawyers and other professionals, Brand said: “The shameful ruling against four internationally recognised human rights defenders makes it shockingly clear that the Turkish leadership does not want to see an end to the persecution of courageous activists who campaign for human rights and fundamental freedoms… The proceedings and the rulings show that, in Turkey, arbitrariness prevails, not justice. There is no independent judiciary free from intervention by the Turkish government under President Erdogan.”
Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, seconded his view. That same Friday, she denounced the “numerous and systematic” criminal proceedings in Turkey against human rights defenders as an abuse of the judicial process.
As this was far from the first time Germans and other Europeans have been caught in the mangle of Erdogan’s judiciary, Brand, a member of the ruling Christian Democratic Union, called on the government to issue a travel warning for Turkey during the summer season.
“With this arbitrary justice, nobody can be sure that he or she will not be arrested on flimsy grounds while on vacation in Turkey, or even innocently charged and detained.”
The absence of the rule of law in Turkey is only one aspect of Ankara’s increasingly tense relationship with Europe. Recently, Turkey’s illegal and aggressive activities in the Mediterranean have become another source of flying sparks.
In fact, today the EU Parliament is scheduled to discuss mounting tensions between Turkey and some EU and NATO members as a result of Ankara’s military adventure in Libya. Then on 13 July, EU foreign ministers will meet to discuss Turkey’s continued drilling operations in Cypriot economic waters despite EU sanctions.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has already hinted at the possibility of tougher sanctions. As Greece has been the victim of numerous provocative Turkish incursions into its territorial waters and air space, it is not surprising that a Greek official would caution against Ankara’s flouting of the principles of international law and urge a “coordinated, unified European response” to Turkey’s attempts to sow turmoil at the borders of Europe.
If relations between Turkey and Europe in general are fraught, temperatures between it and France have soared following French accusations that a Turkish warship locked a French ship in its targeting radar, an act that French military officials have described as “extremely aggressive”.
The French ship was participating in Operation Irini to enforce the UN arms embargo to Libya.
President Emmanuel Macron denounced Turkey’s “historic and criminal responsibility” in the Libyan conflict on the part of a government that “pretends to be a member of NATO” whenever that serves its ends.
Cavusoglu shot back that the French reaction was “destructive” and, drawing on the NATO card, he charged that France was helping Russia gain a foothold in Libya.
Burak Bekdil, a Turkish political analyst, sheds light on an aspect of the Turkish drive to gain a foothold in Libya beneath the headline “Turkey and Qatar: Love in Bloom” on the Middle East Forum website.
“Few Qataris who fought the Ottoman colonialists to gain their independence in 1915 and end the 44-year-long Turkish rule in the peninsula would ever have imagined that their grandchildren would become Turkey’s closest strategic allies… The ideological kinship between the two Sunni Muslim countries, which is based on passionate political support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (and a religious hatred of Israel), seems to have produced a bond that threatens Western interests.”
Fearful that France’s campaign to halt Turkey’s “repeated violations of the embargo and its history of persistent falsification and trafficking” may jeopardise Ankara’s agenda in Libya, where Turkey has just established two military bases, Turkish officials decided that the best defence was offence. So Cavusoglu accused France of lying about the naval incident and demanded a French apology.
Significant French voices believe France should go one better. Former EU Parliament member Aymeric Chauprade was quoted by the AhvalNews site as saying, “I believe that as long as we do not get an apology [from Turkey] and as long as it continues its military operations in Libya, we should freeze our diplomatic relations with Ankara and veto any accession talks between Turkey and the EU. What we should have done long ago is to ban Turkish political activities on our soil.”
In their desperation to counter Paris’s moves in the EU and NATO, some of Turkish officials’ accusations against Paris have become so wild that one might think one is in a Turkish courtroom.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Spokesman Omer Celik has accused France of complicity in the mass graves that were unearthed after Haftar’s forces retreated from Tarhuna in Libya. France is posing as a human rights defender to get away with crimes by blaming Turkey, in order to cover up for Macron’s party’s losses in the French local elections, he added.
Celik’s remarks elicited the bitter wit of Turkish opposition circles who rhetorically reminded Celik of the AKP’s major defeats in last year’s municipal elections and asked, “is Erdogan’s adventure in Libya in order to cover up for those losses?”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly