Back in March, Turkey and the European Union were muddling through their worst crisis: after all, Ankara playing the “refugee card” was quite a shock for the EU. And just when we all believed that Turkey-EU relations had crashed for good, now there seems to be a blooming rapprochement.
Is this a “mock sun,” or are we really witnessing a renewed sense of zest in Turkey’s relations with the EU?
On Turkey’s side, there is renewed interest building up a new foreign policy front: not just with regards to the EU and but also the U.S., and even Israel. If there is a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, why not between the EU and Turkey?
On May 24, the first flight to Turkey in a decade by Israel’s flag carrier El-Al landed in Istanbul. The Dreamliner was decorated with Turkish and Israeli flags as soon as it landed. This cargo aircraft was the first in a series of flights that will take medical equipment from Istanbul to New York.
Prior to the coronavirus lockdown, Turkish Airlines operated 10 daily passenger flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul alongside Turkish carrier Pegasus, which also operated various daily flights between Istanbul and Tel Aviv. Many of those on board were Israelis using the carrier for connection flights elsewhere.
But, this El-Al flight signified something completely different: it embodied actual evidence of the rapprochement process. Moreover, the Israeli embassy in Turkey announced the landing of the plane via Twitter with a chipper tone, and forecasted that flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul will help trade volume between the nations reach “record levels.”
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have picked up the habit of talking over the phone at least once a month since January. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked over the phone on May 18. According to the U.S. Department of State readout, Çavuşoğlu and Pompeo discussed the following:
“…cooperation to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including the repatriation of both Turkish and U.S. citizens to their home countries, supply chain cooperation, and the NATO Alliance efforts to respond to the pandemic. Secretary Pompeo thanked Turkey for its generous donation of personal protective equipment. The Secretary and the Foreign Minister also discussed bilateral relations, including economic and security issues.”
Pompeo shared three tweets that sang Turkey’s praises, thanking Ankara for support on the medical side and solidarity in general.
On May 25, Trump retweeted the international branch of the official Turkish news agency TRT World. The tweet was about Japan’s stimulus package plans: did Trump envision luring in the support of Turkey and Japan (in contrast to its escalating Cold War with China) while retweeting?
In any case, Japan and Turkey were on own their path of adding further sweetness to their already-warm ties through a joint hospital venture. The Japanese-Turkish joint project, the “Sakura-Pine Tree” hospital, started its operations with the virtual participation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 15. President Erdoğan seemed to be on cloud nine during the opening ceremony: the launching of the hospital was yet another example of the big opening ceremonies held by the President amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. These ventures aim to portray the AK Party government at its zenith, or at least back on track, “just like the old days.”
If such “positive vibes” are possible when it comes to the U.S. and Israel, why not with the EU? So, the rapprochement is not a mock sun per se on Ankara’s part. As a person who is usually pessimistic, this time I am optimistic that Ankara is showing actual interest in developing relations with the EU.
The reasons are pragmatic: first of all, it has to do with the deteriorating economy. Even a handful of Euros goes a long way these days in Turkey. Good relations with the EU would certainly help Ankara, as it is much better to cozy up with Brussels than to end up at the IMF’s doorstep.
Secondly, new rivalries are springing up one after the other in the domestic politics of Turkey: first it was Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, but now other names are seeing boosts in popularity. Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş has emerged as one of the top three most popular politicians in Turkey in polls, with Erdoğan and İmamoğlu contending for the first place. Yavaş is from the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), but his political roots are in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is now in electoral alliance with Erdoğan. Yavaş is still a strong name within nationalist circles.
Furthermore, there are other “stirrings” on the nationalist front: the nationalist opposition movement İYİ Party’s female leader Meral Akşener is boosting her popularity as never before, climbing up the ladder to sit confidently as the fourth-most popular politician in Turkey. İYİ was founded in 2017 and now Akşener is emerging as a major power broker for electoral alliances.
Meanwhile, as is well known, Ali Babacan, one of Erdogan’s old partners and his former finance minister, founded his own party in March, the Deva Party. He does not rank high in popularity and his party hovers in the single digits in polls, but a recent online documentary on Babacan attracted mass attention, as well as Erdoğan’s anger. Amidst deepening economic troubles, Babacan is inching towards finding his own leadership tone, placing an emphasis on economic solutions and casting himself as the “Turkish Obama.”
Lastly, for the first time, there is also a leading figure emerging from AK Party itself: Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. His ascendance seems to be beyond Erdoğan’s political design, a true first for AK Party.
So, why not the EU?