Turkey’s sudden desire to ‘turn a new page’ in its western relations comes as a surprise. But what is behind is an apparent change of heart which has to do with the country’s deteriorating economy, writes Robert Ellis.
Robert Ellis is a Turkey analyst and international adviser at the RIEAS (Research Institute for European and American Studies) in Athens.
Seen against a background of hostility and insult – for example, President Erdoğan’s claim that “Nazism is alive in the West” – Turkey’s desire to “turn a new page” in its relations with the US and the EU comes as a surprise.
But perhaps not such a surprise, as the US has decided to impose sanctions on Turkey, and the EU is Turkey’s sixth-largest trading partner and a major source of foreign investment.
But what has brought about this sudden change of heart? No doubt it has something to do with Turkey’s economic collapse, the growing poverty and unemployment and Erdoğan’s chances of being reelected.
As a paper from SWP (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) in Berlin pointed out, Turkey’s EU membership bid was not motivated by a desire for democratic reform so much as an instrument to facilitate its economic development.
Likewise, Koray Çalışkan, a political scientist at Boğaziçi University, argued that the reason why the AKP gave up on the EU process was because it had established total hegemony in civil politics once the army had been pushed aside. It needed the support of the EU to curb the army’s influence, which it did in a series of show trials from 2008 to 2013.
From 2013 Turkey’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) government abandoned all pretence at being a liberal regime and set about to crush dissent, both inside and outside the party. The AKP’s chairman for Istanbul made it clear there would be no future for Turkey’s liberals, who had earlier supported the party.
And MEP Marietje Schaake declared on behalf of the Renew Europe group: “Our dream of a European Turkey has turned into a nightmare.”
In the summer of 2013 what began as an environmental protest against the destruction of Gezi Park in Istanbul spread to 80 of Turkey’s 81 provinces as a protest against authoritarian rule, which was met with a heavy-handed response from the regime.
This is mirrored by the present crackdown on protests by students at Boğaziçi University against President Erdogan’s appointment (rather than the free election) of the university’s new rector.
Every day there are detentions of suspected government opponents and critics, possibly in preparation for a snap election. 292,000 have already been detained and 96,000 jailed since the failed coup in 2016, and more than 130,000 civil servants have been dismissed.
However, in the face of widespread condemnation of Turkey’s abuse of human rights President Erdoğan has declared that 2021 will be a year of democratic and economic reforms.
Yet he has called the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights for the release of Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş “hypocritical”, and ignored the Council of Europe’s order to free human rights defender Osman Kavala.
Former Turkish foreign minister (and later prime minister) Ahmet Davutoğlu formulated a policy of “zero problems with neighbours”, but this has severely backfired.
Already in 2013 Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor (and now spokesperson) Ibrahim Kalın tweeted of Turkey’s “precious loneliness” but now, especially after the Abraham Accords, it has developed into isolation.
As President Trump’s Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, commented at a recent Atlantic Council webinar, Qatar, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria do not add up to a sustainable regional alliance. Turkey’s aggressive expansion in Syria, Libya, Iraq and support for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh can hardly be regarded as confidence building.
Nor can Turkey’s standoff with Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has flummoxed the EU.
Once again, at the last EU summit in December, the EU agreed to postpone a decision on sanctions until the next summit in March. French president Emmanuel Macron’s clarion call for Europe to regain military sovereignty was ignored, and the European Council decided to pass the buck to the USA and wait to hear what the new administration decided.
So far, it is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of “a constructive dialogue” and “a positive agenda” that has won the day, since she brokered the 18 March deal in 2016, which persuaded Turkey to stay its hand and not flood Europe with refugees.
Germany’s role here is less than glorious, as it was Merkel’s call, “Wir schaffen das” (Yes, we can do it) that in August 2015 provoked the migration of over a million refugees to Europe from the Middle East.
In a Christmas video conference with Merkel, Erdoğan praised the German chancellor for being a foresighted leader, but he was not slow to remind her of the 18 March Agreement, which included visa liberalisation, an upgrade of the Customs Union, a renewal of accession talks and €6 billion. In July this was upped by €485 million.
In a New Year’s call to the EU Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, Erdoğan repeated his reminder about the 18 March Agreement and emphasized that Turkey saw its future in Europe. She was also asked to ignore the “caprices” of some EU member states and the “artificial problems” they created.
The US looks at matters differently. President Biden has not yet spoken to Erdoğan but National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in a call to Ursula von der Leyen’s head of cabinet has agreed to work with the EU on matters of mutual concern, including China and Turkey. Sullivan has also spoken to Ibrahim Kalın.
German foreign minister Heiko Maas has opposed an arms embargo on Turkey, because it would be “strategically incorrect”, as Turkey is a member of NATO.
However, the US Treasury has in a memorandum to the Department of Defense designated Turkey as a logistical hub for the Islamic State.