Dark clouds are billowing over Ankara, the seat of an Islamist ruler set on ending the century long life of the secularist Ataturk republic. They are blowing from the direction of Brussels, seat of NATO and capital of the European Union which is preparing for a summit this weekend.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw the storm coming. In fact, he courted and cursed it at the same time. Although he has mollified his tone slightly as the storm approached, he continues to shake his fist at it, determined to add fuel to the fire.
Emerging from Friday prayers last week, which he performed in Hagia Sophia, the famous Byzantine cathedral that he reconverted into a mosque in one of his fits of defiance against the “West”, he could not restrain himself. “My wish is for France to get rid of the Macron trouble as soon as possible,” he said as he posed for photos.
The two-day EU summit which begins today,10 December, is the second in 68 days. European heads-of-state are grappling with a slate of urgent problems at the centre of many of which are the tempests and blazes that Erdogan, no stranger to troublemaking, caused or inflamed in an already tumultuous region.
It is hard to tell where he will strike next. One minute his ships and war planes are violating Greek and Cypriot territorial waters and airspace, and the next he nudges Azerbaijan into battle over Nagorno-Karabakh and furnishes Baku with arms, air cover and jihadist mercenaries for the purpose. All the while, he continues to arm militias in western Libya with tanks, drones and more jihadist mercenaries.
The EU summit comes 10 days after a virtual meeting of NATO foreign ministers, most of whom aired their frustration at Ankara’s behaviour and questioned his commitment to the alliance. Among the most outspoken was French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who asked whether Turkey, which refused to abide by the rules, still had a place in NATO.
The EU has also begun to take a firmer position. On 5 December, Vice President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas said: “Turkey did everything wrong. It did everything it could to confront not just Europe, but everyone. And there is a cost for this.” He added that the EU would be voting on sanctions against Turkey in its summit and that these would be “not only short term, but medium and long term as well”.
Two days before this EU Council President Charles Michel said: “The game of cat and mouse must end,” referring to the dispute between the EU and Turkey over natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s survey and exploration vessel, the Oruc Reis and its escort frigates, which had been encroaching in Cypriot economic waters, ducked back into port just ahead of the summit.
Erdogan’s statements and actions on Varosha, the abandoned Greek resort town in Famagusta in Northern Cyprus, gave the world another taste of that behaviour. Many saw Erdogan’s remarks as deliberately calculated to escalate tensions. In a press conference on 19 November, EU Foreign Policy and Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell said, as reported by Reuters: “We consider the recent actions taken by Turkey and its statements regarding Cyprus inconsistent with United Nations resolutions, fuelling tension even more.”
He continued: “We consider that it is important for Turkey to realise that its behaviour widens the gap that separates it from the European Union... In order to return to a positive atmosphere, as we hope, it will require a radical change in the direction pursued by the Turkish side.” He noted that the EU summit on 2 October had decided to give Turkey a last chance, but Turkey failed to seize it.
Understandably, Greece, one of the countries most immediately affected by this behaviour, is among the most adamant on the need to stand up to Erdogan. Athens has rebuffed a Turkish call for dialogue with Greece “without preconditions” after calling the Oruç Reis back to port two weeks ahead of the EU summit. “There can be no dialogue with the Turks at this point,” said one Greek official.
Germany, which has extensive trade relations with Turkey, has been accused of using its position in the EU to obstruct sanctions. If this is the case, Ankara has made a more flexible position untenable. In the run up to the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel lamented the lack of progress in EU-Turkish relations on issues of mutual concern. “No progress has been made in relations with Turkey” whose behaviour remains “very aggressive or provocative,” she said 1 December.
Several weeks ago, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass had cautioned Turkey that it could expect sanctions if it persisted in its provocations. French Minister of European Affairs Clément Beaune has indicated that a raft of sanctions could target key economic sectors and that “all options are on the table”. “Today, no European country has more illusions about what Mr Erdogan and his regime are,” he said in interview on French television in mid-November.
As Beaune pointed out, Ankara knew what it needed to do in order to avert another disaster for the already reeling Turkish economy. So, what did it do?
Words. It dispatched Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin to Brussels to butter up EU officials. In a meeting with some of them, Kalin said that his country accorded the highest strategic priority to Turkish accession to the EU. But Erdogan quickly reverted to form, using the refugee blackmail card as he told Europe to give Turkey membership first and then talk, and topping that off with a call for a “two-state solution” to Cyprus.
According to reports in the Turkish opposition press, the Council of Europe and Ankara had agreed on a new and wide-ranging positive agenda in the hope of getting their relations back on a healthier footing. But Turkey has not carried out a single one of the agreed upon points. “There are no incentives we can offer. The much needed political will to build a mature democracy does not exist,” lamented one EU official.
The EU parliament had little choice but to officially suspend accession talks as it lamented four years of mass purges and the excessive and arbitrary use of loosely worded anti-terrorist laws and other coercive measures to jail political opponents, silence critics, restrict freedom of expression and the press, prevent access to information and intimidate judges, prosecutors and lawyers.
The EU parliament, in a report, also called on Turkish authorities to release all human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, academics and the thousands of others who remain detained on groundless charges.
Addressing a meeting of the Turkish Exporters Assembly at Vahdettin Mansion last month, Erdogan boasted: “In the past 18 years, we have improved our country through policies based on democracy and development. We will use the same way now in order to make the best of the opportunities ahead of us. We will stimulate investments, boost our economy and increase employment by further strengthening our democracy, rights and freedoms, and the law.”
Hours later, Turkish authorities banned 272 more websites.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.