In a few days, the clock will hit midnight and Germany’s European Union Council Presidency will begin.
In a series of articles, I will try to explore the main issues that Germany’s EU presidency will have to address, and I’ll also question how Germany and the EU’s approach to these issues will affect Turkey.
Let’s begin with the most pressing issue facing humanity’s future: the climate crisis. Due to grassroots activism, especially the diligent efforts of groups like Fridays for Future, in which kids go on strike from school, the climate crisis has come to the forefront of the global agenda. Politicians have finally become conscious of the issue.
In my view, 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. However, overlooking non-environmentally friendly policies may not be so easy. New trade deals by the EU will have to be carved out according to the framework of the up-and-coming European Green Deal. In short, the new international relations of the EU will prioritize sensitivity and alertness regarding the climate crisis, and Turkey is completely unprepared for that.
Germany’s EU Presidency and the Green Deal
In poll after poll, one thing is clear: Germans themselves want their government to focus on tackling the threat of the climate crisis.
Hence, it is no surprise that Germany promised a “green” presidency — but the issue is, what shade of green will it be?
Back at the beginning of 2020, Germany was already readying for focusing on the climate crisis. The target was set specifically because of “great expectations”: Germany’s grassroots activists were expecting this from their own government, and international audiences have been growing more sensitive on climate issues.
Hopes for a global breakthrough crashed (once again) after the United Nations climate conference, COP25, back in December 2019.
After the COP25 in Madrid, even the UN Secretary-General António Guterres was blunt about “underachievement”: he expressed his disappointment via a Tweet: “But we must not give up. […] I am more determined than ever to work for 2020 to be the year in which all countries commit to do what science tells us is necessary to reach carbon neutrality in 2050 and a no more than 1.5-degree temperature rise.”
This is why the buck was passed to the European Union and thus Germany: because there is no other party that can assume the task of leading and achieving the global ambitions on the climate crisis. COP 26 will be in Glasgow in November 2021, and climate activists are banking on achieving and sustaining political momentum throughout the remainder of 2020. Germany’s international leadership capacity and pioneering force will become even more crucial because of that.
The designated task of Germany during its 6-months long EU Council Presidency is to solidify the steps to make the Union “climate neutral” by 2050. Merkel has referred to coronavirus as the biggest challenge in the history of Europe. The coronavirus is certainly a huge challenge, but, considering the long durée history of Europe and the catastrophic lows like world wars, one wonders whether that usually sharp Merkel is on the mark on that comment.
And in the end, has the coronavirus really changed the policy course of the German Presidency? Prior to the eruption of the coronavirus crisis, Merkel was stating that the focus of the Presidency would be “climate change” and “digitalization.” Now, the focal point has shifted to a “recovery plan” to remedy the negative effects of the “corona crisis” — but Merkel does affirm that the economic rescue plan of Europe will prioritize climate change and digitalization.
The other half of Europe was already busy with negotiations regarding the medium- to long-term budget of the EU, the “Multiannual Financial Framework” (MFF), and of course, finalizing the protracted Brexit process. In May 2020, the EU Commission revamped the EU budget with an “emergency temporary recovery instrument” called “Next Generation Europe.” By December 2020, as Germany’s Presidency rolls towards its end, the MFF will have to have stamped “approved” by all member states.
In May 2020, the Commission proposed a powerful, modern and revamped long-term EU budget boosted by Next Generation EU, an emergency temporary recovery instrument. The Commission framed the targets of “Next Generation Europe” as helping “to repair the immediate economic and social damage brought by the coronavirus pandemic, kickstart the recovery and prepare for a better future for the next generation.”
Sounds like music to one’s ears — but how will it actually translate into a common and efficient policy? Germany will have to ensure that it does.
The coronavirus recovery will have to move in tandem with the “European Green Deal,” unveiled by the new Commission back in December 2019. The main pillars of the Green Deal are no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, economic growth decoupled from resource use, and no person and no place left behind. These have to be translated into actual, concrete policies agreeable for all member states.
The climate crisis is not ringing any bells in Ankara
In the good old days, Turkey would have to tune its policies to the European wavelength and adopt policy goals and legislation for the accession process. But as Turkey’s membership process continues to stall, the European Green Deal would be yet another wedge between the EU and Ankara. As Turkey’s economy plunges deeper into recession, Ankara is likely to drag its feet in actually investing in new Green policies. So far, the post-Corona Turkish recovery plan and the “a la Turca Next Generation” program have turned out to further boost the real estate balloon and investments. Interest for bank credits for real estate purchases has been lowered further and the buying frenzy in housing investments have been propped up. Genuine “Green Deal” transformation would require recalibration of the whole economic mindset and the government in Ankara — both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its de facto coalition partner the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) have no parts of their mind close to anything “green” or “environmentally friendly.”
The long and short of it is that the climate crisis emergency is ringing no bells in Ankara.
The EU Climate Law has been in draft form since March, and in the coming months, it will be molded into its final shape as the first legally binding legal document for fighting climate change. One of the targets of the law directly concerns Turkey: the goal of “working with international partners to improve global environmental standards.”
In Germany’s Environment Minister Svenja Schulze’s words, their EU Council Presidency will “march ahead and pull others along” — others such as China. Already, the post-Corona dialogue between Germany and China has started to focus on “strong commitments in the fight against climate change,” alongside the other two main targets of a trade agreement and cooperation in Africa.
If Germany and the EU are prioritizing the Green Deal in talks with China — then it will certainly and inevitably be the focus in relations with Turkey, too. And compared to Turkey, China is far more alert and even adept at pursuing anti-climate crisis policies.
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.
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.
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.