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.
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.
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.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening 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 Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
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.