Et were words that hissed like arrows across the Atlantic towards Ankara: “I think we have to take a look at the effects of the existing sanctions and then decide if more needs to be done,” said Antony Blinken, the US favorite President Joe Biden for Secretary of State on Wednesday night in front of MPs in Washington.
Then Blinken also called the NATO country Turkey a “so-called strategic partner”. That was an affront to ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over whom the former US President Donald Trump had held his protective hand for years.
So it should be fitting that the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu is flying to Brussels this Thursday to meet the chief diplomat of the European Union (EU), Josep Borrell, and one day later NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. In the coming weeks, even the heads of the EU, Ursula von der Leyen (head of the Commission) and Charles Michel (Council President), will visit Turkey.
The new visit diplomacy has a history. About ten weeks ago Erdogan performed a pirouette: “We won’t see each other anywhere else, but in Europe, and we imagine building our future together with Europe,” he purred. Erdogan has been talking about the “European friends” ever since and recently declared: “We are ready to get our relations with the EU back on track.”
The same man had previously defamed leading EU politicians as “links in a Nazi chain”. In the fall, the Turkish President even recommended his French colleague Emmanuel Macron to seek “psychiatric treatment”. Lately the two gentlemen have been writing each other letters calling themselves “friends”.
Why is Erdogan suddenly flattering the EU? He is not an ideologist, but a well-rounded pragmatist and a flawless power politician. After the change of power in the White House, the country on the Bosporus is increasingly isolated internationally, and the government is facing massive domestic political problems. “Turkey has never lost so much trust as in previous years,” says Hüseyin Bagci, professor for international relations at the renowned ODTÜ University in Ankara.
That is why Ankara wants to move closer to the EU again – with giant strides. Erdogan’s most important advocate is Chancellor Angela Merkel. With Cavusoglu’s visit to Brussels, the turnaround initiated by Erdogan and Merkel is now to be officially initiated. “Let’s hope that my meeting with Minister Cavusoglu will last longer than our last meeting in Malta in August, which took no more than an hour,” Borrell quipped two days ago in the EU Parliament.
In the final declaration of their summit meeting in December, the EU heads of state and government not only threatened Turkey with further sanctions because of unauthorized gas explorations off Cyprus, but also – under pressure from Merkel – offered the country a “positive agenda” and a better neighborhood . “But like tango, you need both sides to be good neighbors,” said Borrell. The Spaniard will report to the 27 EU foreign ministers about his meeting with Cavusoglu on Monday. The Turkish policy of “rapprochement” (rapprochement) should then have finally arrived in the Brussels engine room.
Should Europe get involved?
But why should the Europeans get involved in Erdogan’s cuddle course after years of tension? As a neighbor of the EU, the country is of great geostrategic importance. Ankara is also an important player in violent conflicts on the Europeans’ doorstep – such as in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, by securing the border in his own country and through his role in Libya, Erdogan can play a key role in controlling the migration movements towards Greece and Italy.
From the EU’s point of view, Turkey has recently made an advance payment: On January 25, the Turks and Greeks want to resume the “exploratory talks” in order to find a diplomatic solution to their disputes over gas, sea borders and the airspace in the Mediterranean. The talks have been going on since 2002 and were suspended a good four years ago. What the government in Athens announced this week should also come up: the expansion of the Greek territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to twelve nautical miles.
Actually a provocation for Ankara. What is more important, however, is that these “exploratory talks” clarify the long-standing disputes over gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. The EU members Greece and Cyprus lay claim to these sea areas. Last autumn, the dispute almost escalated when NATO partners Ankara and Athens sent warships.
Erdogan is under pressure. He needs allies. In 2017, the new US President Joe Biden called him an “autocrat” who “has to pay a price” for his policies. Washington also wants to expand military cooperation with Greece and establish a naval base on the border with Turkey. Biden also threatens further sanctions that Congress has already decided because Turkey – contrary to NATO rules – bought the Russian S-400 Mitte air defense system in mid-2019.
That could hit the Turkish arms industry and economy hard. On the other hand, Erdogan can no longer rely on the unpredictable Russian President Putin, for whom the Turkish President seems to be nothing more than a pawn – but who, as in Libya, is becoming increasingly unruly.
At the same time, the Turkish economy urgently needs investments that can only come from the EU. The unofficial inflation rate is 37 percent and almost one in four people of work age in Turkey is unemployed. Ankara is now pushing to further expand the customs union with the EU that has existed for decades so that the economy can grow better.
At the same time, Erdogan is demanding new billions from Brussels to supply the nearly four million refugees in the country. Finally, Turkey is pushing for visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens. That would be a tremendous success for Erdogan. To do this, however, he would have to change his so-called anti-terror laws. That is no longer impossible.