In case you did not notice, May 9 was the “Europe Day.” Actually, the start of May has been humming with activities for the European Union: on May 4, there was the Coronavirus Global Response Pledging Conference, the Union’s foremost public showcase to amass solidarity and funding pledges for the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. The Donor’s Conference, streamed online, was like a Eurovision song contest — but with heads of states and prominent institutions gliding across the screen instead of singers and performers.
The EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented a three-hour parade of top politicians across the globe, not just Europe, all sporting beaming smiles. On the other hand, Europe Day was a time when the EU “remembered” that it was stronger together. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had positive vibes for the EU, stating that “there has never been a greater need for cooperation among European countries” in his video message. Aside from “cooperation,” “home” and “solidarity” featured as other buzzwords in the broadcast messages by EU leaders.
Within Europe, the theoretical side of “unity” was achieved — even if the practical part has yet to do so.
At the same time, Europe Day and the Donor’s Conference became unexpected venues for some countries to present their “post-corona” attitudes towards the EU. The United States and Russia opted for the “ignore” button on both, while China and Turkey used both to signal clues about their new diplomatic approach to the EU.
As for the Donor’s Conference, the EU seems to have reached its target by collecting the intended eight billion Euros of pledges from donor countries around the world. A significant portion of the total collected, some 7.4 billion Euros, were funds that had already been made available by donors prior to the Conference launch, but never mind. After all, as we always remind ourselves about European matters, it is actually the idea and the whole endeavor overall that matters. Who else other than the EU could undertake these global initiatives in such a divided world? “If not the EU, who else?” That what we EU supporters always murmur, passing over its mistakes and shortcomings.
However, will the EU remain “irreplaceable” in the post-corona world — and can we, the EU pundits, carry on reiterating “if not Europe…”?
As mentioned, two notable absences from the virtual donor’s table were the U.S. and Russia. Even though the U.S. was remaining “isolationist,” Madonna attended and donated one million dollars. The White House did not want to do even that much.
Interestingly enough, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic participants on both occasions, and he emphasized the need for unity and cooperation. The Europe Day message by Erdoğan was especially “cozy,” and he emphasized that Turkey was as keen to join the EU as a full member as the when whole membership process began 60 years ago.
Ankara’s newfound warmth towards the EU must have to do with its economic contraction and the foreign currency crisis Turkey is rolling into. Engaging with Europe for a possible (and perhaps imminent) bailout would be easier and more internally marketable than an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But rhetoric aside, will Turkey’s post-corona relations with the EU be substantially different than China’s pragmatic engagement with Europe?
A closer look at China’s positional recalibration may provide clues about the “newly-defined” structural nature of Turkey’s relations with the EU. The EU updated its policy approach framework regarding China last year, issuing the “Strategic Agenda for Cooperation 2020”: actually, for the most part, if you cross out “China” and replace it with “Turkey” for the majority of this document, it would not stand out as completely odd.
The EU and China recognize that they have to cooperate in one way or another, simply because it serves both and they have to do it. That does not mean that they can readily get along, but both sides take care not to directly step on each other’s toes. This is different from Russia and U.S. approaches of openly turning their backs on Europe.
Just like Turkey, China took care to be present at the table at the Donor’s Conference — but Beijing’s entire attendance turned into an affair shrouded with mystery. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s name was listed among the attendees, but at the last minute he was replaced by China’s Ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming. The explanation on China’s side is that Beijing never indicated Premier Keqiang would attend the event, they just gave the green light for “attending.” Actually, all this reflects is the “relationship status: it’s complicated” situation between China and the EU. Even if it was all a misunderstanding, the whole episode indicates that the EU and China cannot even communicate and agree over the simplest issue. That also sounds very much like Turkey-EU relations in recent years — if not the whole decade.
There are of course obvious differences when comparing Turkey and China’s relations with the EU. Turkey and the EU know each other very well, and their miscommunication is not driven by a lack of knowledge.
The “lost in translation” feeling was something I always personally observed in EU-China relations. Furthermore, even the foremost countries of Europe like Germany always lacked a team of top diplomats truly cognizant of Asian affairs, fluent in the languages and proficient enough in the culture. When asked about China or other leading Asian countries, top foreign ministers just went blank. As far as the EU itself is concerned, there were more adept diplomats, but they were nowhere near the decision-making process. Such disinterest in “deepening understanding” of China and the whole of Asia in general had to do with the belief that the EU could deal with that part of the world from “an arm’s length.” But that did not turn out to be the case — as the corona crisis has demonstrated very well.
Will the EU grasp the fact that there is no “arm’s length” social distancing in our contemporary world, whether towards China or towards Turkey? Will there be more coherent, realistic and actually-implemented “frameworks” in the EU’s foreign policy in the post-corona times?