“The EU needs to tell us clearly: does it want us or not?” Recep Tayyip Erdogan smirked. “If they don’t, we go our way, they go theirs.” The audience at the TRT World Forum, a gathering hosted by the Turkish public broadcaster’s international TV channel at a swanky Istanbul hotel, exploded in applause. Several rows from the stage, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I saw the President speaking live. It was 2004 and he had come to St. John’s College at Oxford to make a passionate case for why Turkey belonged to Europe. Back then, Erdogan’s plea was met with a standing ovation, too. Oxford dons and students cheered at the prospect of the European Union guiding democratic changes inside a large Muslim-majority country whose growth rates were impressive. “Turkey is Europe’s Viagra,” a dear friend of mine, who also happened to be a professor at the university’s politics department, mused to me.
A decade and a half later, how things have changed! There are some Europhiles left in Turkey, to be sure, but even they are jaundiced. Europe, they would say, has lost its shine, having failed to censure authoritarian behavior in Ankara. The government bears grudges too. At the TRT event, Erdogan deplored Europe’s double standards. How dare Brussels bigwigs lecture Turkey about democracy given rampant Islamophobia across the European Union and the harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers? Turkey, the champion of the downtrodden across the globe, from Palestine to Myanmar to Somalia, could claim the higher moral ground. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu didn’t hold back: “All of the EU’s policies have failed: enlargement, neighborhood, integration policy,” he intoned.
He might have a point. Yet it is also true that Turkey’s star doesn’t shine as bright these days. Without even bringing up the balance sheet of Ankara’s foreign policy in Syria and beyond, it is hard to overlook the fact that the Turkish lira has been in free fall for months. It has lost 40 percent of its value since the start of 2018, and we probably haven’t seen the bottom yet. Saddled with debt denominated in foreign currency, Turkish banks, along with much of the private sector, are vulnerable to further depreciation. Erdogan, who officially accrued extensive executive powers as President after the June 24 elections, has not done a great job of staving off the crisis. Turkey-watchers quip that the lira fell more sharply the day Erdogan appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak as Finance Minister than it did on the night of the attempted military coup on July 15, 2016. The European Union might be battered and bruised, but so is Turkey. And the Europeans’ capacity to muddle through has at least been proven.
The crisis has seen Erdogan re-engaging with his European counterparts. The Turkish President went on a three-day state visit to Germany last month, and Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok headlined the TRT World Forum along with Cavusoglu. Turkey has been sending up trial balloons to see whether Europeans might offer a bailout package. That may not be highly likely at the moment, but the game of footsie continues. Erdogan knows, after all, that German, French, and Dutch companies are active in the Turkish market, and could face a real downside in case of a total meltdown.
Overlapping interests drive cooperation in other areas too. In June, the European Union and Turkey renewed the 2016 refugee deal, in which Ankara agrees to continue taking back asylum-seekers crowding neighboring Greece. In exchange, the Turkish government received a new €3 billion grant. Erdogan is hoping for more. He is pushing for a four-way summit on Syria in Istanbul, to be attended by Russia, France, and Germany. Putin and Erdogan secured a ceasefire deal concerning the region of Idlib in north-western Syria, the site of the last remaining rebel stronghold. There are serious questions as to whether the deal will stick; with momentum on his side, Assad’s forces might be tempted to overrun the enclave, which is currently home to 3 million people, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country. Still, Moscow and Ankara hope their deal will not only survive but also prove a stepping stone to a political settlement of the conflict—underwritten by billions in reconstruction aid from Europe. The message is clear: “Fund our effort to rebuild Syria and you won’t see a new wave of refugees streaming in across your borders,” to put it crudely.
As far as Turks are concerned, the true villain is the United States, not Europe. The lira’s hardship is blamed on economic warfare waged by the Trump Administration. And that’s only one grudge in a long list, which stretches from America’s alliance with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria to the ongoing legal case against Turkish lender’s Halkbank for violating Iran sanctions. In some of those disputes, the European Union is on the same side of the barricade. For instance, Ankara and Brussels are working together at the World Trade Organization to challenge the Trump Administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs. Turkey’s reluctance to seek a loan from the Washington, DC-based IMF is the reason it is probing Europe as an alternative. Trump should get part of the credit for the EU-Turkey reset which included Erdogan getting the red carpet treatment in Berlin—the fact that the Turkish strongman called the Germans Nazis last year is fast fading from memory.
Perhaps reset is too ambitious a word, though. EU-Turkish relations are improving but they are still transactional. In Germany, Merkel has taken fire from across the political spectrum, from the Christian Social Union to die Linke, for cozying up too much to Erdogan. Emmanuel Macron is calling for a strategic partnership with Turkey, presumably a remake of the “privileged partnership” the European center-right advocated in the 2000s as an alternative to full EU membership. But even that proposal is getting a lukewarm reception across the continent, except for maybe by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who never misses an opportunity to drop a flattering mention about “[his] friend Tayyip.”
Concessions to Erdogan, such as an update to the 1996 Customs Union tying Turkey to the European Union (side-note: a possible model for post-Brexit UK?) are impossible unless the government stops infringing on basic rights and freedoms of its citizens. And Erdogan does not seem to be in the mood to compromise. In Berlin, he demanded the extradition of Can Dündar, a leading critic and former editor-in-chief of the daily Cumhuriyet. The sentences of three prominent journalists, accused of being complicit in 2016’s failed coup, have been upheld. In Berlin, Erdogan restated his demand that the Fethullah Gülen movement be listed as a terrorist organization. The answer was a resounding nein.
The tone in Turkey itself is similarly an indicator that the opening to Europe is, at best tentative. One of the questions TRT forum debated was whether the European Union would survive. Former dignitaries such as Stefan Füle, enlargement commissioner in 2009-14, Croatia’s ex-President Ivo Josipović, and Franco Frattini, a former Italian foreign minister, said it would. Turkey’s top brass, predictably, sang a different tune, the same old song and dance: the European Union is in decline, Turkey is rising…
But don’t let the obligatory swagger and the accusations of double standards leveled against the West deceive you. Erdogan is well aware his country needs Europe.