Another dark morning at Istanbul. It is pitch black at 7 a.m. as Turkey refuses to use daylight savings time in winter since 2016. My son checks his mobile for the “breaking news” on Iran and the U.S. as the hectic morning begins. He is anxious as he updates me about the latest tweets by President Donald Trump. One says:
“These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner. Such legal notification is not required, but is given nevertheless!”
So, there goes an extremist interpretation of executive presidency: The Congress was notified that the President can do anything in the name of the people they represent and they will be warranted through a tweet. If Turkey wakes up to darkness every morning due to a presidential decree, why will the U.S. not wake up to an all-out war with Iran, where all international laws of war so meticulously crafted with much agony, pain and effort over decades and two world wars, through a presidential tweet? Why not?
When I was roughly my son’s age, the U.S.-Iran War was a surreal and bizarre plan floated by the most radical of the neocons in the George W. Bush administration. Now it is a reality. My son and all kids today have every right to be anxious.
Insanity has become the new sanity.
Diplomacy is scorned, rationality despised and mocked, data is twisted and manipulated, the crooked has become the new righteous.
Just as the world we have come know crumbles, we try to explain it.
A few months ago, I was discussing the “recent developments” in the Middle East. One of the regional experts from Germany was lamenting how strong Iran was getting in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; he also lamented that people who share his opinion had difficulty in “waking up” Germany’s Foreign Ministry to the growing soft and hard power of Tehran. Truly, Qassem Soleimani had created a dominion extending all the way from Tehran to the borders of Israel. It was his cunning military strategy that established dozens of Shiite militia factions in Ira and Syria, and galvanized Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon. Soleimani came to embody military, economic, political and charismatic might much more so than almost any other leading figure in the region. His assassination must have relieved many within the circles of power in the region and beyond, including in even his own country and those seemingly on the same side, like Russia.
Nevertheless, what other types of leaders and political actors dominate the region?
Soleimani and the U.S. may have been adversaries, but they have also worked together against the Taliban in the aftermath of September 11 attacks, as Dexter Filkins’ 2013 New Yorker report notes.
John Hudson, Josh Dawsey, Shane Harris and Dan Lamothe’s joint report in the Washington Post argues that the U.S. Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo retained a “fixation on Iran that spans 10 years of government service from Congress to the CIA to the State Service.” Pompeo declared that he is “proud of the effort President Trump undertook,” and that it was the right decision to kill Soleimani, taking “a bad guy off the battlefield.”
What do European decision makers think of all this? Waking up from the holidays, January 6 turned out to be truly “blue Monday” for European Union institutions. Had it not been for the Iran crisis, it would have been business as usual: the EU agenda was demurely preoccupied with its own events for this week. The whole assembly of EU commissioners and the EU Council President Charles Michel would make their first trip together to Zagreb for passing the presidency to Croatia, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen would visit London for more Brexit talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the Vice President Margethe Vestager would visit Geneva for the World Economic Forum.
But then, Iran happened.
The clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threatening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brussels. Borell was also keen not to mix normative views on Soleimani’s death as Britain, France and Germany’s governments made it clear their eyes are completely dry over his departure. While Berlin, London and Paris also emphasized restraint like Borrell, they so far passed the buck to achieve both “restraint” and the target of saving the nuclear deal over to the EU itself. Can there be division of labor between the EU institutions and the EU leaders in which the former deals with Iran and the latter with Trump? At the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or road map, and the basic instinct seems to bury one’s head in the sand. But this crisis may also be an opportunity to define a new European foreign policy approach for the third decade of the 21st century.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.