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.
Can there be an EU-Turkey rapprochement despite Ankara’s “troubles” with Athens?
As Turkey declares “victory” in its war against the coronavirus, one of the designated venues to celebrate was the Hagia Sophia. On the day of the “Conquest of Istanbul,” May 29, mosques across Turkey were opened up for prayers and the “Conquest Verse” from the Quran was recited at the Hagia Sophia. The “Fall of Constantinople” or the “Conquest of Istanbul” — which term you use depends on your viewpoint — occurred 567 years ago, and one would presume that both Greece and Turkey should be past whatever happened between the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in 1453. But when things start go haywire between Turkey and Greece, things really go haywire in a downward spiral.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) likes toying with the “prayer in Hagia Sophia” theme, simply because it is politically lucrative. And if in the recent weeks, issues like the targeting of LGBTI people by top religious officials and the broadcast of “Ciao Bella” from the mosques of İzmir are occurring, then this must have to do with luring conservative voters back to the AKP. In other words, reciting the “Conquest Verse” at the Hagia Sophia has more to do with domestic politics than annoying Greece.
To recap, let’s recall the string of events that have happened since late April:
“The head of Turkey’s top religious authority has once again targeted LGBT individuals during a sermon. ‘Islam curses homosexuality. What is the reason of that? The reason is that it brings with it illnesses and decay to lineage,’ Ali Erbaş said on April 24, while addressing the novel coronavirus outbreak. Last year, Erbaş had claimed that the pride march ‘goes against creation,’ calling same-sex relations ‘heresy’.”
“The Italian resistance song ‘Bella Ciao’ was on May 20 broadcast simultaneously from several mosque minarets in Turkey’s western province of İzmir. The provincial religious directorate issued a statement regarding this unusual recital saying their central adhan system had been sabotaged by unidentified people.”
And last but not least came the Hagia Sophia saga on May 29:
“The Greek Foreign Ministry has denounced a decision by Turkey that verses of the Quran be recited at the Byzantine-era cathedral Hagia Sophia on the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in 1453 as an ‘unacceptable attempt to alter the site’s designation as monument’ and as an ‘affront to the religious sentiment of Christians throughout the world.’”
Undecided voters are on the rise in Turkey according to polls, and almost half of them are conservative and from the former AKP base. You do the math on why, all of a sudden, these aforementioned types of events that stoke conservative sentiment have been popping up.
But Ankara is doing other things too, much to the dismay of Greece.
On the other hand, Turkey instrumentalizes Navigational Telex (Navtex) to designate certain waters in Aegean as “restricted” to conduct military exercises and carry out other military-related actions. In return, the Greek Navy does the same from time to time. All of this turns into a high-tension chess game between the two “NATO allies.” Add Frontex and NATO vessels to the mix and it gets really spicy.
On May 29 (the day of the Hagia Sophia saga), Turkey’s message from Navtex had embedded symbolism, as four areas were marked as restricted to the South of Crete with the names “Ne”, “Mutlu”, “Türküm”, “Diyene” — meaning “Happy is the one who says I am a Turk.” This is the famous motto taken from the 10th Anniversary Speech of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. On the same day, the hydrocarbon research vessel “Oruç Reis” was spotted within the boundaries of Greece’s continental shelf. Greek frigate HS Nikiforos Fokas was dispatched to the area to monitor its activity, but Oruç Reis returned back “due to bad weather.”
As might be guessed, the news circulated in Turkish media with many jingoistic adornments. So, there was something for everyone when it came to domestic audiences in regards to the ruling AKP: Hagia Sophia prayer for conservatives and Navtex messages laden with symbolism for nationalists.
On a more serious note, on May 30, the Turkish Official Gazette outlined sections of 24 blocks in the Aegean where it will conduct hydrocarbon exploration. These sections overstep the contentious maritime borders agreement signed last November between Turkey and the Tripoli-based government in Libya. They are within or beyond 6 nautical miles of the coasts of eastern Crete (Girit), extending to Kasos, Karpathos (Kerpe) and Rhodes (Rodos), and overlap with the Greek continental shelf.
The nautical sections are carved in a way that makes clear that Ankara is reiterating its position that the Greek islands cannot claim a continental shelf, and that they have the sovereignty over just six nautical miles of territorial waters. The publication of this news in the Official Gazette was followed by the consignment of those blocks to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (Türk Petrol Ofisi-TPAO). And more Navtexs will surely follow — maybe with ever more creative and inflammatory restricted area names. Beyond this hydrocarbon business and the adding of fuel to the old “continental shelf in Aegean” feud between Greece and Turkey, all this is evidently about proceeding with the implementation of the border deal with Libya.
Greek sources brand these developments as the “realization of their worst case” scenario.
As if we needed more stress with the “Corona Crisis” still unfolding with its health, economic, social and political implications, we have now a “worst-case scenario” possibility between Greece and Turkey.
Until Germany becomes president of the European Union Council in July, we may see a further rise in tensions in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara may be calculating these moves as utilitarian bargaining chips to order to assert loudly that “I am here, we’ll have it my way” in course of rapprochement with the EU. After all, some rapprochements consist of shaking cold hands.
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.
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?
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.