Like a poorly scripted, never-ending melodrama, “The Turkey-Europe Story” – directed by and starring President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – jerks from one emotional extreme to the next, often more than once in a single episode. It has become so predictable. One minute he speaks of “putting our disputes behind us” and moving forward to a brighter future “for the sake of our people.” The next he stomps off in a huff, hurling the charge of “strategic blindness.” But before long he’s back to wooing and “turning a new page” in his relationship with no mention of the faults and foibles that marred the previous page – only to flare into a rage once again, committing more of the same. Turkish TV serial fans at home and abroad have grown used to the mood swings, the tantrums and hotheadedness. Some may even take a certain pride in how he has turned Turkey into what some have called “the most controversial country in the region and the world.”
On 12 January, after months of tensions spiking thanks to his actions – or his “recklessness”, as the Turkish opposition would have it – in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and the Caucasus, Erdogan suddenly switched to “conciliatory” mode. In an address to the EU ambassadors in Ankara he said that his country was ready to put its relationship with the 27 member bloc “back on track” and apply a new “visionary approach” that would “turn 2021 into the year of success in Turkey-EU relations.” He called on EU capitals to join him in his quest to turn a page, adding that Turkey still had the goal of becoming a member of the EU. “The mounting uncertainty that followed Brexit could be overcome when Turkey takes its rightful place in the EU family,” he said, as though Turkey held the key to an EU existential crisis. As for the Eastern Mediterranean, which his own policies have turned into a flashpoint of regional tension, he called for turning it into “a sea of justice and equity... a sea that does not divide us, but rather brings us closer together.”
Ankara had previously announced that Turkey and Greece, two NATO members, would resume exploratory talks on 25 January to resolve their dispute over oil and gas exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. The talks will “usher in a new era,” Erdogan told the EU ambassadors before extending an olive branch to France: “We want to reassess relations with France with a visionary approach to rescue them from the line of tensions.” But how have Europeans responded to Erdogan’s “charm offensive,” as some media described it?
The day it reported Erdogan’s meeting with EU ambassadors, Russia Today (RT Online) conducted an opinion poll among its readers. “Can Erdogan normalise relations between Turkey and Europe?” it asked. The results came as no surprise: 70 per cent of respondents said, “No.” In an article in Moskovsky Komsomolets, appearing in Arabic on RT Online on 12 January 2021, the writer explains, “During the past two years, political scientists have observed how Turkey’s involvement in regional issues has increased. Today, its forces are working to shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Caucasus, and its media make no secret of the ultimate goal of the country’s foreign policy being to ‘regain ancestral lands’, meaning the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. This is the prevalent belief in all European countries.”
The German Kurdish lawmaker Helin Evrim Sommer, for one well-informed party, is under no illusions regarding the destabilising effects of Erdogan’s perspective. “The recent tensions with Greece, which have returned from the brink of military conflict, are proof that the Erdogan government has become a serious threat to the stability of the entire region and the EU itself,” she said in an interview with the AhvalNews site. “If the EU does not want to completely lose its political credibility, it should apply sanctions. The EU would have rewarded Turkey with an updated customs union, visa exemptions for Turkish citizens and increased payments as part of a 2016 refugee deal if it ended its aggressive policies in the eastern Mediterranean... But there was no softening in Turkey’s policy. On the contrary, the provocations increased.”
Sommer, who represents Die Linke (the Left Party) in the German Bundestag added: “Especially with its war against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, Erdogan’s government has long been the arsonist of the Middle East and has publicly violated international law.”
Such concerns are echoed across Europe. Brussels is at the end of its tether with Erdogan, who has inflamed crisis after crisis and then used them as a means to pressure Europe into making political and economic concessions. Erdogan is notorious for using Syrian refugees as a tool of political blackmail. The softening of his tone is clearly an attempt to ward off an impending raft of EU sanctions in March. Will it work?
“Turkey has a credibility problem from the perspective of the outside world,” Ilter Turan, professor at the political science and international relations department of Istanbul University told the Bianet news site. “There is no confidence that anything it says or does will have continuity.” As a result, whatever steps it has taken to develop new relations that overcome the tremors it has caused in its current relations will have little success.
Nor are they likely to succeed given Erdogan’s predilection for U-turns, inflammatory rhetoric and lashing out at perceived enemies. That is not to mention how Turkish intelligence has managed to ruffle European feathers. By pure coincidence, Austrian news offered a reminder of this problem the day Erdogan was courting EU ambassadors. On 12 January, Vienna announced that it had expelled an Italian man of Turkish origin who, in September 2020, had been charged with conducting “military espionage on behalf of a foreign state.” Feyyaz Ozturk, who turned himself in to Austrian authorities that month, identified himself as a retired member of Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency and told authorities he had been instructed to assassinate three Austrian politicians who were vocal critics of the Turkish strongman. Turkey has of course vehemently denied Ozturk’s affiliation with MIT. Did I hear someone say “credibility problem”?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.