When people live in the house next door for years, you sometimes don’t realize how they are gradually changing. Until suddenly it no longer works. Then what used to be cozy suddenly sounds like hell, the bold gesture looks like impudent and eager to grab. We experience such a moment with Turkey, a big neighbor. Not going anymore. And that is also our problem.
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in Ankara in 2002, he was a model neighbor: his AKP party was seen as the Muslim sister of Western European Christian Democracy; the armed forces loyal NATO ally in the fight against 9/11 terrorism; reformed the economy according to EU timetables. The neighbor wants to look like us, beautiful. Erdogan tamed the power of the generals, abolished the death penalty upon request (2004) and only had to release some journalists, and then we were there.
Eighteen years later, the same neighbor shows a different character. Two topical issues draw attention. First, Turkey is sending another ship into Greek waters this week to search for oil and gas – a provocation after Chancellor Merkel narrowly avoided a clash of arms last summer.
Second, Turkey is joining the recently flared conflict in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia: the Azeri side is armed with Turkish drones (a high-value export product) and reinforced with Syrian mercenaries (recruited through the Turkish connection). Although the Azeri strongman Aliyev looks more like a wealthy, secular oil dictator à la Saddam Hussein than a devout Muslim, Erdogan called for support for the linguistic brothers in their “holy war.”
What happened between 2002 and 2020? It is a long time to talk about the intermediate steps. The crushed civilian protests at Gezi Park in Istanbul (2013). The failed 2016 coup, followed by a witch hunt for the Gulenists and a seizure of power by referendum. The middle finger to NATO, with the purchase of a Russian anti-missile defense system (2017). The attack on the Kurds in Syria and interference in the Libyan civil war (2019). The transformation of Hagia Sofia into the proud mosque of yesteryear (2020).
The pattern is clear: Turkey is emerging as a self-confident power player and regional superpower. “Neo-Ottoman,” this is called, because the new sultan eagerly awaits the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world. But President Erdogan is equally the heir to Atatürk, the father of the modern Turkish state, and proud of his G20 membership. In short: all means are good and permitted, as long as they make Turkey more powerful.
Power is relative and so you also get more of it by weakening opponents. Five years ago, Erdogan first blackmailed us in the EU: in a deadlocked negotiation, he threatened to send tens of thousands of Syrian refugees by bus to Bulgaria and Greece. To stunned EU Presidents Tusk and Juncker: “Yes, because what are you going to do with those refugees without a deal? Shoot? ” A few months later, the famous EU-Turkey deal was concluded (in which the country became our border guard in exchange for six billion euros).
In February of this year, Erdogan carried out the threat of chaos after all. He transported hundreds of migrants to the Greek border to destabilize that country and the EU. A trio of EU leaders rushed to the border accompanied by the Greek prime minister. We stood firm.
For example, the Netherlands, Germany and France recognized for the first time from 2015 that the physical border between Turkey and Greece is also our border. The responsibility for it, in shared concern for asylum seekers or for border security, has yet to take shape, but the principle stands.
Now that Erdogan is stepping up the ladder of violence, the same realization is needed. Territorial provocations against Member States Greece and Cyprus violate our external border. Therefore, the EU does not fall for the role of mediator, which Angela Merkel takes on. After all, the EU is a party to this case. You also don’t ask Washington to mediate between Texas and Mexico.
France plays a different role and prefers to get straight to it; Macron sent a navy ship this summer and was almost provoked. Of course, dealing with Erdogan’s Turkey requires a diplomatic conversation, but the French president understands that it is also a matter of power and counter-power.
Luuk van Middelaar is a political philosopher, historian and professor of EU law (Leiden).