The decision to postpone the EU council meeting solved – for the time being – one thorny EU question, writes Denis MacShane. What to do about Turkey’s new Sultan Erdogan and his non-stop aggression against EU member states, and core EU values?
Denis MacShane is a former Minister for Europe for the UK.
Cyprus has been put in the EU’s naughty corner as the EPP-controlled government there refused to sign off on sanctions measures against Belarus’s Lukashenko.
In time-honoured EU fashion, Nicosia used its veto powers in protest at European Commission and Council inaction on Turkish irredentism in the East Mediterranean.
Cyprus, it should not be forgotten, was invaded and dismembered by Turkey in 1974. Many remain indignant about Putin’s dismemberment of Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea and sanctions are still in place against Moscow.
But Erdogan has sent Turkish naval vessels to protect an energy exploration ship operating in waters that both Greece and Cyprus consider part of their domain.
For millennia, the identity of Greece is based not just on its mainland but on its islands. 200 years ago in 1821, it was island Greeks who rose up to claim freedom and independence from their Ottoman colonisers.
England’s Lord Byron was one of many Europeans who threw himself into the struggle for Greek independence – dying from fever in Greece in 1824.
Now President Erdogan in the eyes of many Greeks and Cypriots wants to restore Ottoman splendour. At a conference in Athens earlier this month, the former French president, François Hollande, laid out the charge sheet against Erdogan.
The new Sultan Erdogan, he said, was seeking to militarise the Eastern Mediterranean; had breached Nato Treaty obligations by buying Russian missiles; had imprisoned hundreds of journalists and political opponents; is obsessed with Islamism, promoting Islam in Europe and has converted two of the finest Byzantine Christian cathedrals in Istanbul into mosques; he flagrantly interferes in the politics of European countries like France and Germany, holding giant political rallies and insisting that Turkish EU citizens owe loyalty only to Turkey; his adventurism in Syria and his war on the Kurds is dangerous; and his alliance with Libya was an act of aggression.
Yet Hollande was countered by Germany’s former SPD Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. He shrugged his shoulders and told Hollande and a number of Greek ministers that if Turkey was sanctioned for buying Russian S-400 air defence missiles in clear violation of Nato Treaty obligations or was made to leave Nato, Turkey would quickly become a nuclear power.
He added that if the EU showed solidarity with Greece and took any measures against Erdogan, Europe would have to build new walls on all its frontiers including internal ones in countries like Hungary, as Erdogan would send a million or more refugees into the EU.
For Gabriel, the main problem was that the United States was not ready to sanction Turkey and given the US controlled Nato, there would be no clear line on Turkish militarisation of the East Mediterranean.
For Gabriel, the answer was “strategic patience”. As Gabriel mockingly put it: “If the EU’s foreign policy is now vegetarian, German foreign policy is vegan”.
As keen meat eaters, the Greeks are more than disappointed with this policy from Berlin though as the UK’s former ambassador to Greece, John Kittmer, pointed out in a paper for London’s main defence policy think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the Greeks need to improve their public diplomacy in smaller EU member states.
Paris is currently Greece’s number one supporter. When taxed with letting in an utterly reformed, corrupt Greece into the European Community in 1980, the then French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, grandly replied: “Europe without Plato is unthinkable.”
Britain was one the most Hellenophile of Europe’s nations. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson is proud of his Turkish ancestry – his great grandfather, Kemal Ali, chose the wrong side after 1920 and was killed by his opponents – and since Brexit the UK is no longer a foreign policy player.
Now it is France which is Greece’s main champion though the French Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, has rebuked Cyprus for blocking action against Lukashenko.
Macron sent a French naval frigate to warn off Erdogan but the EU can only handle one foreign policy problem at a time and right now Belarus takes up all the bandwidth of the EU’s External Action Service..
Angela Merkel had a conference call with Erdogan and EU Council President Charles Michel this week and told Erdogan to enter into talks with Greece which the Sultan acceded to.
No-one holds up much hope for a new Turkey-Greece rapprochement such as happened during the so-called “earthquake diplomacy” era initiated by Greece’s then foreign minister, George Papandreou, in 1998. This led to moves to allow Turkey to be accepted as a candidate for the EU. As Tony Blair’s Europe minister at the time the UK and many on the centre-left supported Turkey’s turn to Europe.
But 20 years later Erdogan has made clear he has no interest in a European Turkey but wants an Islamised Ottoman Turkey back which holds sway once again over the Aegan region.