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Clipping Erdogan’s wings

This year has marked the beginning of the end of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regional ambitions as well as the end of his political honeymoon with Europe

Hany Ghoraba , Thursday 26 Nov 2020
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In a year that has witnessed a lot of political changes, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also had much better years in his long political career. This year’s events have not only brought Erdogan’s megalomaniac ambitions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East to a halt but may also have witnessed the end of his honeymoon with Europe as well. 

The EU has finally answered French, Greek and Cypriot calls to take a stand against the Turkish president’s provocative actions in the region and the destabilisation that has followed them with its ripple effects on the Old Continent’s stability. 

After nearly two years of deliberation and debate, the EU has sent an ultimatum to the Turkish president demanding that he stop his provocative actions in the Mediterranean, especially against EU members Greece and Cyprus, and his political feud with France. Sanctions against Turkey have been postponed by the EU several times, with these being seen as a last resort because of the strong economic ties between the EU and Turkey. Erdogan had earlier perceived the European hesitation as a form of weakness or inability to carry out serious sanctions against the Turkish state.

But on 19 November during a teleconference among EU foreign ministers, it was decided that the EU would take more severe measures against Turkey during the next EU summit to be held on 10-11 December. 

The date was set after a series of provocations by Erdogan last week, the latest of which was his visit to occupied Northern Cyprus where he delivered a speech. Erdogan called for peace talks with the parties in the Cyprus conflict and for what he called a “two-state” solution. This has been categorically rejected by all the parties, however, including the United Nations. The aim of a unified Cyprus has been clearly established in diplomatic discussions worldwide.

The provocative visit put the nearly five-decade-old conflict in Cyprus back in the news headlines and was met by disdain from European leaders as well as by protests even by some Turkish Cypriots themselves. The protesters fear that Erdogan is wagering their future and involving them in his political, if not soon to be military, conflicts. Many of the protesters believe that their future lies in the reunification of Cyrus. Northern Cyprus is only recognised by Turkey and no other country as a separate state that declared its independence nine years after the Turkish invasion in 1974 that took control of nearly 38 per cent of the island. 

The conflict and the Turkish involvement in Cyprus have remained issues that have prevented the acceptance of Turkey as a member of the EU. And the recent visit to the island by Erdogan seems to have been a straw that has broken the camel’s back. In response, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borell said that “we consider the recent actions and statements by Turkey related to Cyprus contrary to the United Nations resolutions and further igniting tensions.” 

Should the EU sanctions against Turkey to be discussed in December be implemented, they will become the latest blow to the already ailing Turkish economy, which had a trade balance with the EU amounting to 138 billion Euros in 2018. Restricting Turkish exports to the EU will send a message to the Turkish regime that its days of getting away with murder are over. 

Furthermore, Turkish radical groups across Europe are being hunted down at present, with the notorious ultranationalist Turkish group the Grey Wolves being a particular target. The Grey Wolves, established in 1968, have been involved in a number of terrorist attacks, assassinations and high-profile attempted assassinations, including on former Roman Catholic pope John Paul II in 1981 by Mohamed Ali Agca, a member of the group. 

The group is characterised by its mix of ultranationalist ideology and radical Islamist beliefs. It is believed to be a militant wing of the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is a close ally of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Other similar groups targeted by EU countries such as Germany include the German Democratic Idealist Turkish Associations Federation (ADUTDF) and the European Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations Union (ATIB).

 France and Austria have already banned the Grey Wolves, while the German Bundestag is mulling taking similar action. The group has long been a pro-Erdogan militant Turkish group in Europe, referred to by observers as “Erdogan’s European guard”. Even so, many European countries have looked the other way when it has come to the Grey Wolves’ criminal and terrorist record, even though the group has targeted Turkish dissidents in Europe and particularly the Kurds. The latter have been massacred by the Grey Wolves, for example in the Maras massacre in 1978 when up to 185 Kurds were killed and up to 3,000 more injured. European governments are now paying the price for overlooking the menace posed by such groups. 

Erdogan now presents one of the most bizarre diplomatic situations for the EU since its inception, as it is now faced with a fellow NATO ally and a potential member taking hostile action against it. The situation is quite different from that presented by Russia. Russia, as the successor state of the former Soviet Union, has been on a collision course with the European powers since the 17th century. It was a reliable ally during World War II, when it was instrumental in winning the war against the Axis powers. However, the expansionist ambitions of Stalin that followed and the establishment of client states and puppet regimes across Eastern Europe led to decades of conflict that remained in effect even after the fall of the former Soviet Union. 

Erdogan’s tomfoolery is becoming increasingly irritating to many, and thanks to EU complacency he apparently feels he has the upper hand in controlling the pace of EU-Turkish relations and can dictate whatever he wants and EU leaders will eventually comply. Should they not do so, Erdogan has threatened to raise the issues of refugees in the Eastern Mediterranean, or the importance of Turkey in NATO, or to start cosying up to the Russians. 

His latest comments about Europe show that he is now trying to mend relations with the EU provided that it complies with his demands on Cyprus and his illegal exploration for gas in the Mediterranean. Erdogan said this week that the Turks do not see themselves as anywhere else but in Europe. The statement is bizarre, however, since less than a month ago Erdogan was accusing several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, of being the descendants of “mass-murdering colonialists” who should not tell Turkey what to do. 

He said in October that Muslims were being treated in Europe like the Jews were 80 years ago and that “Islamophobia” is a cancer that was spreading on the continent. But he has since shifted his rhetoric to appease the Europeans, and now he wishes his country to join this group of “mass-murdering colonialists and Islamophobes,” as he has called them.  

Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, not to mention countries such as Armenia, have long paid a high price to appease the Turkish tyrant, and the end result has been waves of terrorism, extremism and instability in many countries in the region. If the Europeans do not live up to their promise of sanctioning the Erdogan regime this December, the price may be much higher in the form of a military conflict that will be the natural result of years of political complacency. 

It is high time that Europe sends a message to Erdogan in the hope that this will avoid wars that could still be triggered by the Turkish tyrant at some time in the future.


The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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