France is not the nemesis, neither is Turkey

The new buzzwords when it comes to Turkey are “firm transactionalism” or “principled indifference." These to me are akin to putting a moustache on a hippopotamus and claiming it is now Guy de Maupassant -or simply put, just another embellished way of saying “business as usual." There are better alternatives to explore instead of scoring cheap points and deafening fiery rhetoric.

Let’s ask ourselves some questions and try to look for possible answers –without necessarily any order of priority: Why France is so adamantly opposed to Turkey in almost all fronts of diplomacy? How Turkey-US relations will play out if the S-400 issue is not somewhat resolved? Is Turkey-Iran confrontation really inevitable in the short term? How will the future of Turkey-EU relations will fare, taking into consideration EU’s 2004 debacle giving in to Greece’s diplomatic blackmail of blocking enlargement towards beyond the ex-Iron Curtain against full membership for Southern Cyprus and (among others) France’s rejection of the EU constitution in 2005 (also) based on an imagined “nightmare” of potential full EU membership of Turkey?

Now, let’s also try and sketch the scene as it is today: The EU happily assigned Turkey with the role of a bulwark against the illegal migration from MENA. Among the EU member heavyweights Germany, France, Italy, Spain and now out of the EU, the UK there are fundamental differences in treating the “Turkish file” (as perhaps there are with Russia). President Biden’s priority will be China and by default a competition between models, as in a utopia opposed to a dystopia, will need to involve assertive US global advocacy of democracy and liberties. This year, elections will be held in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Israel. NATO military presence in Iraq will increase from 500 to 4000. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov coldly declared that Europe is not the EU as he should observe that in fact High Commissioner Borrell’s seat is an empty one –reminiscent of the sentence that is attributed to Winston Churchill: “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing St. and Attlee stepped out of it”.

Beyond the variables, there also remain constants, as in a still life with skull: Turkey is NATO member since 1952. Turkey is among the founders of both the CoE and the OSCE. Turkey is a EU candidate country since the 1963 Ankara Agreement or the 1999 Helsinki Summit or the 2004 Brussels Summit. Historically Turkey is part of the European structure if not since 1453, even legally bindingly at least since the 1856 Treaty of Paris. Like Italy and Spain, it sits atop a precious peninsula protruding towards the Mediterranean. As per its constitution, it is still a secular republic. Turkey is the EU’s 5th largest trading partner, export market and provider of imports. The EU is by far Turkey’s number one import and export partner, and the major source of investments. And last, Turkey is home to four million Syrian refugees.

As there are hard questions that Turkey should ask itself (which we will not get into here), there also is another set of questions asked by Turkey that await frank answers from the West. Will the EU keep moving the posts during the game? (OK: Or does Turkey have the will to abide by the rules of the game?) Will the EU keep hiding behind the Southern Cyprus and Greece or even perhaps behind President Erdoğan to kick the can down the road forever? Is it realistically possible to create another NATO from within the EU just for the sake of circumventing Turkey’s veto power in the Permanent Council? Did the EU just start its atrophy with Brexit following its entropy towards the East? What does an autonomous (from the US) defence and foreign policy mean vis-à-vis Russia and China?

As President Erdoğan claims when calling for reforming the UNSC that “the world is bigger than five”, Turkey is (old enough to be) bigger than one. As France already enters the 2022 election cycle, Turkey-bashing appears to be the easiest almost as a knee-jerk reflex for President Macron. In the imperial days not only London, Paris and Berlin but also Moscow used to jockey for influence with the Sublime Porte -and compete with each other for ransacking the goods. France, provided then a cultural inspiration and even a foreign language of choice to the disillusioned ottoman intellectuals and then an administrative model to the young republic. Relations with France were by far the most multi-dimensional by the 19th century and still France was the first European power to sign a treaty with Ankara in 1921.

Those discussions between Franklin Bouillon and Kemal Atatürk had taken weeks if not months to culminate with a full understanding. True, whatever his claims are as a re-founder of the republic, Erdoğan is no Atatürk. Yet, the full and frank nature of those historic meetings can still provide diplomatic inspiration today. In other words, the game-changing silver-bullet rests with activating the oldest game in town, which is patient and clear-eyed diplomacy. (A fluent Turkish speaker and having spent part of his childhood in Turkey, the French Ambassador in Ankara Mr. Magro and President Macron’s class-mate from ENA, the Turkish Ambassador in Paris Mr. Onaner can prove to be most valuable assets in just facilitating to kick-start that.)

Choosing between civil society and the presidential palace is a false choice. Creating clay models out of or straitjackets for Turkey as a Sunni power against a Shia crescent, a keystone of a Muslim belt to contain Russia, a mildly Islamist alternative to Al Qaeda and derivatives, a less authoritarian system in the Middle East as opposed to harsher authoritarians like Sisi, MbS and MbZ, a sole bulwark to illegal migration from MENA is doing injustice to this nation with its multi-layered identity and rich history. Within that context, the currently contentious issues of secularism, counter-terrorism and the Mediterranean including Syria and Libya that seemingly opposes France to Turkey at every turn are at the same time beyond being foreign policy issues for both countries. They are part and parcel of the mould of their respective national identities.

The new buzzwords when it comes to Turkey are “firm transactionalism” or “principled indifference." These to me are akin to putting a moustache on a hippopotamus and claiming it is now Guy de Maupassant -or simply put, just another embellished way of saying “business as usual." There are better alternatives to explore instead of scoring cheap points and deafening fiery rhetoric. Instead of the current sterile antagonism, these can turn out to be the foundations of an understanding that will go well beyond presidents Erdoğan and Macron. This possible long-term effort must transcend the usual little games played by the intelligence services or the pedestrian politicking and will naturally necessitate a political mandate. “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation” -and the diplomats are generally tasked to do the rest, quietly and out of the public spotlight.

April 12, 2021 Ursula standing