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?
Ankara wants to play the “Leader of the Muslim world card” — but there is more to Hagia Sophia’s conversion than just that. Just like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “West Bank annexation” policy, Ankara banks on the strategy of “creating an international problem to overshadow debating domestic grievances and making national politics dependent on the existing government through isolation” strategy.
Ankara is more concerned with France’s involvement in Libya than either Greece or Cyprus at the moment. Is this a window of opportunity for a Turkey and Greece-Cyprus rapprochement? It might be, provided that the EU concedes to visa liberalization, the Customs Union, or both.
In the coming years, “Green Deal” policies for tackling the climate crisis will be the new contentious area between the EU and Turkey, replacing the traditional rupture point of human rights. It is not that Turkey will turn into a human rights bastion, but in its international relations, the EU has already backpedaled on prioritizing human rights.
Ankara has been readying for Germany’s EU Presidency in its own way. The first thing on Ankara’s agenda is brokering and concluding a new migrant agreement with the EU, and doing so by gnawing away some serious concessions. We may translate this as “money talks”.
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek, and according to the holy wisdom of Turkish politics, if “reconquering the Hagia Sophia” is becoming the motto, the target to redesign the political, electoral and legislative scene is looming over the horizon in Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and the European Union may indeed be back on track, but which track is that exactly? Just when I had given credit to EU-Turkey rapprochement, despite my usually pessimistic self, the usual flare-ups with Greece started up again.
Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who resigned yesterday, is referred to as the “architect of Turkey’s recent policy in Libya, and the Aegean and the Mediterranean.” Now that he is gone, there might be room for Ankara to maneuver and revise its Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean policies to win hearts (but maybe not minds) in Brussels.
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 bailout would be easier and more internally marketable than an agreement with the IMF. Will Turkey’s post-corona relations with the EU be substantially different than China’s pragmatic engagement with Europe?
The race for vaccine in the EU’s case does look like the race for the antidote nationalism, too.
The world stopped with the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis between Turkey and Greece did not. In other words, the Greece-Turkey conflict is immune to COVID-19: even the coronavirus cannot smother the seething cauldron that is the Ankara-Athens axis.
After the current coronavirus crisis even if returning back to “normal” begins, it seems that the rest of the world will be like the “delivery guys” for Europe. In the new “normal,” Turkey’s citizens or not, regardless of nationality, the only non-Europeans entering the gates of the EU will be transport personnel (like drivers), residency holders and some very selective cases of business or service providers for some time to come.
While various countries including Turkey are now embarking on “corona diplomacy,” China was the first to begin attempts to win hearts and minds with direly needed aid. Beijing was the first to extend a helping hand to European countries suffering the worst from the pandemic— Italy and Spain—and to the economically most fragile one, Greece.
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.
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.