Erdoğan’s Italy talks shrouded from public gaze

Not even one phrase attributed to Italian Prime Minister Paulo Gentiloni or President Sergio Mattarella emerged from their meetings with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week.  

With the Italian president the dialogue was said to have been "frank and respectful", while with the prime minister the issue of the rule of law and Syrian Kurds was raised, sources in their respective offices told the media.

But there was no press conference or even an official statement. While demonstrations against his visit raged in Rome, Erdoğan passed through deserted squares guarded by police.

Perhaps Italian corridors of powers are also empty because neither there was there any official word of how Italy sees Turkey. The Italian position, newspapers said, is that of the European Union. Thank goodness we know who to call.

This is a far cry from Erdoğan’s visit to France last month where French President Emmanuel Macron said publicly and explicitly that as things stand there was no prospect of any progress in Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Agreements were nevertheless signed in Paris with the Italian-French consortium Eurosam to supply Turkey with missiles, but Macron’s political position was clear.

So Erdoğan’s only significant conversation in Rome was with the Pope. Pope Francis shares Erdoğan’s views on maintaining the status of Jerusalem, challenged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise it as the capital of Israel. 

Erdoğan was returning a visit the Pope made to Turkey in 2014. At the time, the international community hailed the Turkish president as a moderate, even if the facts, inside and outside Turkey, said the opposite.

Turkey and the Vatican had to mend a breach in relations after the Pope used the word genocide to mark the 2015 centenary of the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan recalled the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican and it took nine months of delicate diplomacy to restore ties.

Even over Erdoğan’s audience with the Pope there was little transparency, but the Vatican is not a democracy, so secrecy is perhaps more understandable.

So what did Erdoğan do with the Pope? Besides Jerusalem, the Pope’s main interest is to protect the Christians of the Middle East, a community that has shrunk dramatically as a result of war in Iraq. In Syria, the Pope wants to protect the Christians who by and large support President Bashar Assad. So while the Pope tolerates Erdoğan’s brutalities against the Syrian Kurds, Erdoğan turns a blind eye on Assad.

The issue of Turkish-Italian economic relations is clearer. Projects include the expansion of Istanbul airports and contracts in the transport and automotive sectors.  

One of the topics also addressed was defence, including missiles and helicopters. In addition, the two sides discussed projects to bring gas from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Italy. In short, Italy and Europe, in addition to the United States, are keen to keep Erdoğan attached to NATO with appetising military orders to make up for Ankara's purchase of the S-400 missiles from Russia.

All talk of human rights, the rule of law and the plight of the Syrian Kurds was kept away from the public eye.