Managing disasters of all kinds, from earthquakes to EU relations

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.

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. When news of the Elazığ earthquake broke on Friday evening, I was shaken to hear that its magnitude was 6.8, as earthquakes of even lower magnitudes inflict lethal damage in Turkey, and this one turned out to be devastating. Having resided in Japan, and having witnessed earthquakes above magnitude 6 in both countries, I have come to recognize how preparedness makes a difference in case of natural disasters — especially when it comes to earthquakes. In Turkey, even in cases of earthquakes with magnitudes of around 5, there is rightfully a lot of panic. In contrast, back in Japan, I was among the majority of people who went about their daily routine as if nothing happened, even after earthquakes higher on the Richter scale.

Recently, back in November 2019, Albania was hit by an earthquake with a 6.4 magnitude. The New York Times’ report from January 1, which reflected on the disaster after some time had passed, contained the following observation:

“The Nov. 26 earthquake in Albania killed 51 people, sent hundreds to hospitals and left thousands homeless. As the shock recedes, the tragedy offers a stark warning for a region that has been devastated by much more powerful quakes in the past and that experts warn is ill-prepared for the next big one.”

As I was reading the story back then, I remember how those sentences stuck in my mind, and made me think of how accurate they are for Turkey as well:

“Successive governments have failed to address the risks posed by aging buildings and shoddy construction, leaving millions vulnerable.”

There are a lot of related and diverse political analyses that might be drawn from the successive earthquakes in Albania and Turkey, but one stark political difference stands out: the European Union response to both disasters exemplified once again how Turkey and the EU have drifted apart. 

Let’s first have a look at the top responses from the EU extended to Turkey via Twitter, which has ironically turned out to be the foremost mode of diplomatic communication in these contemporary “Trumpian” times.

After the Elazığ earthquake, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy expressed “full solidarity with the people of Turkey,” and tweeted the following:

“Our thoughts are with the people of Turkey, with the families of the victims of the devastating #earthquake that hit #Elazig, and all those injured or affected. We are following closely.”

Borrell’s office was also the highest office to have sent a comprehensive and emotive message. It is noteworthy that Borrell was also the first to convey a message on behalf of the EU in case of the Iran-U.S. crisis. 

President of the European Council Charles Michel, who was also vocal about Iran and the U.S. tensions like Borrell, tweeted the following about Elazığ earthquake:

“Our thoughts go out to the victims’ families and all those injured in the devastating earthquake in #Turkey. We stand ready to provide support.”

Responses from these two top offices, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the President of the European Council, seemed to be driven by the personal assessments of the actors filling these positions, not by a common EU concern for the Elazığ earthquake at the institutional level.

Then there were the messages from the EU offices designated for tasks related to crisis management or enlargement and EU regional policy. 

The EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi wrote:

“Earthquake in #elazig: Standing in solidarity with the people of #Turkey. My deep condolences go to the families and friends of the victims & my thoughts are with all those injured and affected by this disaster.”

The European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič tweeted:

 “Worrying news from eastern #Turkey just a while ago hit by a strong #earthquake. Saddened to hear about fatalities and hoping there will not be any more. Our #ERCC is closely monitoring the situation,” 

And a second tweet followed: 

“It is with great sadness I learnt of the deadly #earthquake in #Turkey last night. Our #ERCC has been in immediate contact with TR authorities. At their request, we activated  @CopernicusEMS to help 1st responders. We stand ready to provide further support.”

Copernicus emergency satellite mapping service aids first responders working on the ground, such as the rescue and aid teams. It is the minimum level of cooperation that both sides could ask from one other.

But that was about it. The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was completely silent. I find it diminishing to compare disasters, but one must note that when Albania’s earthquake struck, von der Leyen responded differently.  She was a few days away from assuming her new office when the earthquake in Albania happened, and she tweeted as follows on November 30, 2019:

“Just talked to the Albanian PM @ediramaal who told me about the difficult situation after the earthquake. I have great respect for the Albanian people who've remained calm despite the circumstances. I want them to know that the EU is at their side with compassion AND with action.”

New European Commissioner for Crisis Management Lenarčič was sent to Albania to asses the situation around the epicenter Mamurras, and an international donors’ conference was arranged. This conference is scheduled to take place in Brussels on February 17.

It was not just von der Leyen that was absent on the EU side; Executive Vice-Presidents Frans Timmermans and Valdis Dombrovskis were missing as well. The only other piece of communication came from Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, who retweeted one of Lenarčič’s tweets. But since Vestager’s executive portfolio is about digitalization and furthering Europe’s technological advancement, perhaps that tweet was alluding more to the Copernicus satellite system than Turkey’s quake itself. 

Interestingly, the warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.

Emmanuel Macron tweeted that:

“France stands alongside Turkey in the face of the earthquake that occurred yesterday. My thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones. We stand in solidarity and ready to lend our support.”

But in the case of Greece, there was the most emotional and supportive of all messages of all — not just in terms of EU countries, but beyond.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsokakis wrote:

“My wholehearted sympathy to President @RTErdogan and the Turkish people following the devastating earthquake that has hit Turkey. Our search and rescue teams stand ready to assist.”

And, the former PM and main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras even tweeted in Greek, Turkish and English his sympathies. 

One of Greece’s foremost dailies, Kathimerini, reported that:

“According to an announcement from the prime minister’s office, Erdogan thanked Mitsotakis for his support and added that Turkish authorities would have a clearer picture of the situation … Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias also called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to express Athens’ support.”

These are of course a far cry from the rapprochement between Greece and Turkey during the catastrophic 1999 earthquake in Turkey that devastated vast areas of the Marmara region. However, at this point, the real “disaster management” that is needed concerns the current state of EU-Turkey relations — if there are even such a thing as “relations” between Turkey and the bloc at this point, with the exception of the “refugee prevention” issue.

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