Erdogan: An anchor in stormy times

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the President of the European Council in Brussels December 15, he rhetorically took a step towards the European Union. Erdogan said he wanted to open a new page in relations with the EU, and he sees the future of Turkey in cooperation with the EU, according to a statement by the Turkish Presidential Office.

Every positive step is a “window of opportunity” to keep the relationship from falling into a vicious circle, and so he hopes for a fresh start in the talks, based on common interests. That was – four days after the EU summit in Brussels, at which the heads of states threatened more specifically with sanctions against Turkey because of the provocations in the eastern Mediterranean. In October, immediately after the previous summit, Turkey sent its exploration ship back into waters to test wells, a sea region that belongs to the exclusive economic zone of Greece and Cyprus.

Erdogan further fueled tensions with the EU when he called for a boycott of French goods in late October. This was followed by a further provocation on November 17, when he visited the ghost town of Varosha in Cyprus and declared the part of the restricted military area controlled by Turkey to be open.

But now the U-turn. The final declaration of the summit last week merely repeated what had already been stated in the October declaration: A mere threat of sanctions and an offer to Turkey for a “positive agenda”. In the two months between October and December, however, the environment for Turkey changed. And so Erdogan is approaching the EU again. Because the government in Ankara is now threatened with sanctions from two sides. The US Congress, for example, has decided on punitive measures against Turkey with such a large majority that even Erdogan’s well-meaning President Donald Trump can no longer veto it. The reason for this action was the purchase and commissioning of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The mild sanctions could be increased at any time so that they plunge the Turkish economy into turbulence.

In any case, Turkey has to adjust to a rougher wind from Washington under President Joe Biden. Erdogan can no longer rely on a phone call to the White House to resolve problems, and he can no longer use tensions in the Western alliance between the United States and the EU to Turkey’s advantage. The Turkish president will also have to move within the framework of the institutions in the future, and he must find a way of dealing with Biden, who is said to have sympathy for Greece and Cyprus.

In addition to the impending sanctions and the change in the White House, the state of the Turkish economy is the third reason why Erdogan is trying to realign Turkey’s policy at the turn of the year. It is true that the country has weathered economic crises well over and over again in the past few decades. However, this resilience would not save Turkey from the looming next crisis, and it would have caused it for itself. A month ago, Erdogan pulled the emergency brake and fired Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law. The trust of investors were lost, so the exchange rate of the Turkish lira fell into a devaluation vortex, although the central bank had pumped almost all of its foreign currency holdings into the market.

Another external shock – and new sanctions would be one – could trigger another currency crisis, which Turkey would then no longer be able to counter. The devaluation has already made imports considerably more expensive. This drives inflation upwards, so that the purchasing power of the Turks is in free fall. The financial markets and inflation are not the only concerns. Because the corona pandemic is also causing the Turks to lose income and unemployment. In addition, the months of concealing the extent of the pandemic have cost the government’s credibility among the population. In the face of this storm, which is looming on several fronts, Turkey is reflecting on an anchor of stability, which, as things stand, can only be the EU. At the end of this year’s German Council Presidency, the final declaration of the most recent summit repeated the offer of a “positive agenda”. It is formulated in the chapter “External Relations”. However, Turkey, which has been a candidate for accession since 2004, no longer appears in the “Enlargement” chapter.

The lash of sanctions remains an option for the European Union. But it is also inviting Turkey with the carrot of a “positive agenda” to mutually beneficial relationships, out of “strategic interest”, as it is called. According to the statement, which also takes up the Turkish proposal to prepare a multilateral conference on the Eastern Mediterranean, this concerns the economy and trade, high-level contacts and continued cooperation on the issue of migration. Erdogan is a politician with a keen sense of power. His actions are determined by two factors: the opportunities available to him and the positive and negative incentives to which he reacts.

For example, he made determined use of the breakup in the Middle East and the partial US withdrawal to expand Turkish influence. Before that – mostly negative – incentives were reasons for course corrections, which took place almost annually. They mostly intended to defend Erdogan’s power first – and later also to expand it. It all started in 2004 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the Leyla Sahin case against Turkey that the headscarf ban at Turkish universities at the time was not a discrimination or a violation of religious freedom. The ruling weakened Erdogan’s AKP’s euphoria for membership in the EU. In 2007, two events – the threat of a coup by the military and the narrowly unsuccessful ban on the AKP in the Constitutional Court – led to focus on securing power. Most recently, the failed coup attempt in 2016 was the starting shot to significantly expand Erdogan’s power as president.

Erdogan has announced a new wave of reforms in order to rebuild the trust that has been lost in its own people and also in Europe. However, concrete steps have not yet been taken. Turkey is said to have deficits in the areas of rule of law, the fight against corruption and human rights. However, the chances of reforms happening are assessed as slim. Because the MHP, Erdogan’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner, rejects them resolutely, and such reforms would also call Erdogan’s presidential system into question. Erdogan will not get any further just with his warning that Europe should no longer underestimate the importance of Turkey due to “strategic blindness”.

On the other hand, there are still hopes in Turkey that there will be movement in the proposed modernization and expansion of the customs union as well as in the visa liberalization promised in the refugee deal of March 2016. France, which has become Turkey’s most important adversary in the EU, is opposing both. The two NATO members are the two states with the largest armies in the Mediterranean, and both have imperial memories that include regions that overlap. What once belonged to the Ottoman Empire in North Africa was later incorporated into France. Since Erdogan likes to fight hard, he has not avoided conflicts in foreign policy for several years. With a foreign policy that relies on the threat of violence, he even seeks open confrontation. He was confirmed by the Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev, who stated that he had achieved more in the 44-day campaign against Armenia than in thirty years of diplomacy. So far, the Turkish successes in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean have proven Erdogan right. With his militarized foreign policy he is now reaching its limits. Thus in the eastern Mediterranean, his enemies have united in a phalanx: Greece, Cyprus and Egypt rally around France. Erdogan, however, has not succeeded in forging a coalition on his own behalf. Northern Cyprus and Azerbaijan do not help him in conflicts with economically stronger rivals. Probably for this reason too, Erdogan is again looking for a connection to the EU as a sufficiently strong anchor in times that are becoming more difficult.

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