As the aggression and empire-building of Erdogan’s Turkey becomes clearer, the EU faces a watershed moment, argues Robert Ellis.
Robert Ellis is a member of the Advisory Board at Vocal Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank dedicated to research on EU diplomatic actions, enlargement policy and democracy.
Although the meeting of the European Council has been postponed for a week until the beginning of October, the situation remains unchanged. As the EU’s foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell has pointed out, Europe is confronted with three resurgent empires, Russia, China and Turkey, and the latter constitutes an immediate problem.
Jacques Attali, an adviser to the late French President François Mitterand, has already placed the summit in a historical context.
He tweeted: “We have to hear what [Turkey’s president] Erdogan says, take it very seriously and be prepared to act by all means. If our predecessors had taken the Führer’s speeches seriously from 1933 to 1936, they could have prevented this monster from accumulating the ways and means to do what he had announced.”
The warning is not inappropriate. In 1936 German troops reoccupied the Rhineland in defiance of the Versailles and Locarno treaties, but Britain and France did nothing.
Likewise, in January 2018 Turkey invaded and occupied the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in north-western Syria, claiming its sole objective was to fight terrorism and protect its borders. The EU’s reaction was negligible, but Operation Olive Branch boosted President Erdogan’s standing at home.
Last October Turkey launched a similar offensive, Operation Peace Spring, against the Kurdish area of Rojava in north-eastern Syria. In this case, Turkey invoked the right of self-defence according to Article 51 of the UN Charter. In both cases, Turkish troops were supported by jihadist militias, who called themselves the Syrian National Army.
However, a UN Commission of Inquiry has documented war crimes committed by the SNA, including murder, torture, rape and seizure of property.
President Erdogan has made his intentions plain.
“Turkey has become a powerful regional actor at a scale never seen in its recent history. Our country’s position in global power index assessments is increasing with each passing year. We are now closer than ever to our goal of a great and strong Turkey. Once we safely carry our country to 2023, we will have made Turkey an unstoppable power.”
This is reflected in the fact that Turkey has troops in 13 countries (Cyprus, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Somalia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Albania, Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Sudan).
There is also the maritime dimension. Turkey’s ‘Blue Homeland” naval doctrine lays claim to a vast swathe of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea, which has brought Turkey into conflict with is neighbours, Greece and Cyprus.
In July, it almost came to war between Greece and Turkey over the small island of Kastellorizo off the south coast of Turkey.
France, with a display of hard power, has not been slow to react. President Emmanuel Macron has declared his solidarity with Greece and Cyprus and despatched fighter jets, a frigate and an aircraft carrier to the region. It has also come to a war of words.
Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has accused France of “acting like bullies” and President Erdogan told Macron, “don’t mess with Turkey”.
Turkey feels fenced in and excluded by the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and the MED7 (Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain).
The MED7 at its recent meeting in Corsica expressed its determination to “use all adequate means at the disposal of the European Union” in response to Turkey’s confrontational actions. Macron has also called for a Pax Mediterranea.
In turn, in an echo of Hitler’s speech in Berlin’s Sportpalast in September 1938, where he laid claim to the Sudetenland, Erdogan has warned that “Turkey has the political, economic and military power to tear up the immoral maps and documents [i.e. the Lausanne treaty of 1923] imposed on it”.
At the same time, Turkey has called for a dialogue and fair treatment. Its infringement of Cyprus’ EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is unquestionable, but the overhanging issue of the island’s division remains unsolved. There is also the question of whether a small island with 200 inhabitants can lay claim to an exclusive economic zone.
Turkey has in its search for ‘lebensraum’ extended itself. As Turkey’s former ambassador to the US, Namik Tan, has commented, ordering the Turkish army into Syria and engaging in military operations in Libya as well as carrying out gunboat diplomacy with France and Greece is difficult to sustain, especially in view of Turkey’s economic situation.
This is Turkey’s Achilles heel. Foreign investors are fleeing, Covid-19 has crippled tourism and Moody’s has downgraded Turkey’s credit rating to B2, putting Turkey on a level with Egypt, Jamaica and Rwanda.
At an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington on “The new geopolitics of Turkey and the West”, a panellist observed that the EU has a greater leverage over Turkey than the US because of Turkey’s dependence on European trade and FDI.
Therefore the application of sanctions can be an effective response. However, this will require unanimity, which led to a deadlock in the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council on 21 September. The plan was to impose sanctions on Belarus, but this was blocked by Cyprus, which insisted on parallel measures against Turkey.
The danger is that the European Union, in its desire to appease a powerful neighbour, can make the same mistake as Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, did in 1938 and dismiss the whole issue as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”.