Even as he doubles down on his increasingly aggressive policies in Syria, Turkish President Erdogan is now cranking up for a further furious row with the EU.
Though some Turkish officials appear to have wanted to downplay the European Parliament’s resolution on freezing Turkey negotiations to join the EU, Erdogan himself has responded with predictable fury, accusing the EU of “betrayal” and threatening to flood the EU with refugees if the decision is not quickly reversed. Some of Erdogan’s language is – diplomatically speaking – off the scale
“Some 30-40 votes for ‘no’ and 400-500 votes for ‘yes.’ What would happen if all of you voted ‘yes?’ You never treated humanity honestly and you did not look after people fairly. You did not pick up babies when they washed ashore on the Mediterranean. We are the ones who are feeding around 3.5 million refugees in this country.
You did not keep your promises. When 50,000 refugees turned up at the Kapıkule [border gate] you cried out and began to say ‘What will we do when Turkey opens the border gates?’ Look, if you go further, those border gates will be opened. You should know that.”
Just a few months ago, after the refugee crisis broke, certain supposedly knowledgeable commentators in the Western media said it was all a wicked plot by Russian President Putin to flood Europe with refugees in order to undermine German Chancellor Angela Merkel. No evidence for that bizarre claim was ever produced because of course there is none. Erdogan’s latest comments however show who really does think of using refugees in this way.
Putting all that aside, Erdogan for once has a measure of justice on his side.
Turkey entered into an association agreement with the EU back in 1963 and formally applied to join in 1987. Since then it has had to watch in frustration as it is repeatedly put to the back of the queue as a seemingly endless procession of formerly Communist East European states have been allowed to join ahead of it.
Given the key role Turkey played on the Western side in the Cold War, for a proud nation this must be beyond frustrating.
It hasn’t helped that whilst pretending to welcome Turkey’s eventual EU membership, EU political leaders are barely able to conceal their strong prejudice against Turkey, and their quiet but firmly held belief – widely shared by the European public – that as an Islamic state Turkey simply does not belong in a union made up of the states of once Christian Europe.
Understandably enough many Turks have come to feel that Turkey has been led up the garden path, kept perpetually onside and persuaded to subordinate itself to Western policies it has no inherent interest in and avoiding engagement with neighbours that are arguably culturally more compatible allies such as the Central Asian states, Russia and Iran, in return for a promise of EU membership which is not intended seriously, and which will never be fulfilled.
Beyond this Erdogan has a further personal reason for resentment.
The European Parliament’s resolution was supposedly triggered by his supposed overreaction to the failed coup in Turkey, with the European Parliament criticising the actions Erdogan has taken to crush his opponents by jailing so many thousands of them.
As the democratically elected leader of Turkey Erdogan will have undoubtedly noticed that this European concern for his opponents was not matched by a comparable concern for him when the coup against him in July appeared to be about to succeed.
Not only did European and Western governments remain silent and fail to signal their support for him – in contrast to the Russian and Iranian governments which did – but if it is true that several European states refused his aircraft landing rights, then it is not difficult to understand why he might feel that the true sympathies of most European leaders were with his opponents rather than with him.
In such a context it is easy to see how Erdogan might interpret European expressions of “concern” for the fate of these people as further confirmation of where Europe’s true sympathies lie.
I would add that if Erdogan’s gaze stretches – as it probably does – across the Black Sea at Europe’s response to the crisis in Ukraine then he cannot have failed to notice that the EU not only welcomed a coup which overthrew a democratically elected President, but that it continues to support a government which gained power through that coup, and which harshly oppresses the former supporters of the overthrown President. If Erdogan dwells on all this (as from to time he probably does) then the parallels with his own situation must seem too close for comfort.
Having said all this, whilst it is possible in this case to make excuses for Erdogan, his quarrel with the EU is a further case study of the shocking mess he has made of Turkey’s foreign policy.
Whereas Erdogan at one time promised a “no problems” foreign policy with his neighbours, and as recently as this June was talking of Turkey’s need to sort out the problems it had with some of them in its own interests, he now finds himself in conflict with Egypt, Iraq and Syria, at war with the Kurds in Syria, in profound disagreement with Iran over Iraq and Syria, and on bad terms with the EU. His relations with Russia meanwhile are not mending as quickly as Erdogan apparently hoped, again because of disagreement between him and Russia about Syria.
To add to Erdogan’s problems his personal relations with US President Obama are by his own account very bad, whilst what his relations with President elect Donald Trump will be like is as yet unknown.
The only important countries in Turkey’s region that Erdogan is presently on good terms with are Israel – with which he once quarrelled and which doesn’t trust him – and with Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly shown itself a false friend, and which is militarily weak.
The trouble is that though Erdogan shows at times some understanding of Turkey’s limited power and that this makes it simply impossible for him to conduct the sort of grandiose ‘neo-Ottoman’ foreign policy he hankers after, his vanity and his inordinate ambition always in the end prevent him from acting on this understanding.
Thus when he says things like “the world is bigger than five” – as he did in his comments today – he is purporting to place Turkey – and by extension himself – on the same level as the five Great Powers of the UN Security Council – an impossible ambition, and one which explains why Turkish foreign policy is the mess it currently is.
Can any good however come from all this?
In one respect Erdogan’s habit of getting into quarrels with everyone around him may have done Turkey some good. If the fantasy of Turkey integrating itself into Europe and joining the EU is now finally and conclusively buried, then that can only be a good thing. Turkey would in that case finally be free to conduct a foreign policy free of illusions, pitched to its own interests, rather than one constantly intended to please someone else whose promises to Turkey are never fulfilled.
Should that happen there may some day be a Turkish statesman who makes the most of it. However that person is most unlikely to be Recep Tayyip Erdogan.