Cengiz Aktar
Feb 19 2018

An annotated Not-To-Do list for Europeans lost on Erdoğan

This addresses political as well as economic decision-makers at bilateral as well as multilateral settings.

Two snapshots from the last days: Members of the European Parliament held yet another get-together to express their “very deepest of regrets” on the Turkish slide since 2013. The second was at the luxury Excelsior Hotel on Rome where the cream of Confindustria – Italy’s employers’ federation - hurrying to dine with Turkish President Erdoğan for his grand-bazaar of construction projects. The giants of Italian construction and engineering - Leonardo-Finmeccanica, Salini, Astaldi, Italferr…they are all lining up before the Turk.   

Europeans are keen to stick with Erdoğan for three major reasons: to continue to sell goods, in particular arms and to bid for juicy engineering projects for which local expertise is missing; to keep Turkey in NATO so to avoid pushing it in Putin’s lap; and in the short-run, to ensure patrolling continues on Turkey’s borders to block mass movements of refugees, migrants and now ex-jihadists to Europe.  

As a fig leaf, while happily making business with the regime, they feel the need to soothe the remorse they may have about the dire state of human rights in Turkey.   

How sustainable are these basic assumptions? And so, would the vulgar appeasement policy help co-existence with Erdoğan’s Turkey and for how long?

Let’s start with the fig leaf. The Turkish government has remained thoroughly unimpressed with the deluge of regrets spread in countless intergovernmental or non-governmental declarations and reports since 2013. Not a single captive has been released from prison and not a single unlawful sentence redressed thanks to injunctions by Europeans, with the exception of a secret deal between former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Erdoğan and now between the German State and Turkish State for the release of Deniz Yücel. To the contrary the Turkish government uses the lamentations as proof of “Western imperialist support” for its jailed “terrorists”. Even so, European declarations and reports are systematically self-censored, over-cautious and thus helpless. The latest examples are the systematic avoidance of condemning Turkey’s attack on the Kurdish Afrin enclave in northern Syria, as well as the threats against Cyprus and Greece.

First Recommendation: When you don’t dare take concrete forceful action, better abstain from regretting, lamenting or tweeting.   

Part of the fig leaf is the alleged opposition between the people of Turkey and an authoritarian regime. This is a chimera; the issue is not between an “evil Erdoğan” and an “angelic Turkish people”.

Second Recommendation: Do not underestimate the overwhelming support the regime gets from the vast majority of the population whose fascist characteristics are being exacerbated by the ongoing war against Syrian Kurds.  

Part of the fig leaf is also the oft-repeated redirecting to Turkish civil society of EU’s suspended financial assistance. This is urgent but needs a new programming at Brussels level free of any interference by Ankara.  

Third Recommendation: Do not overestimate your leverage on the ways to bring back to life the rule of law in Turkey. Your leverage is stone dead with the end of Turkey’s EU membership prospects and you are very happy with this. Hence do not waste a minute to reformat existing EU funds so as to address the needs of, in particular, exiled free media and free academia.  

Now on concerns regarding the security imbalance that is taking shape in southeastern Europe through Turkey’s realignment with Russia. Although a Russo-Turkish strategic partnership is, historically speaking, an oxymoron, one should never underestimate the weight of anti-Americanism prevailing under the present Turkish government, in Turkish society and now in the army. Temptations to go it alone, although overblown and militarily unworkable, will remain high as long as Ankara will incriminate Washington and the West for being friendlier to Kurds and as long as Ankara itself is friendlier to the Muslim Brotherhood and its countless offshoots, proxies and avatars in the region.

Bear in mind that the percentage of Turks who think the West is working to carve up Turkey, like it did with the Ottoman Empire, stands at 87.6, while 77.6 percent think the West’s approach to Turkey reflects a crusader spirit and 54.3 percent think that the United States poses the biggest threat to the country’s territorial unity as a consequence of its alliance with the Syrian Kurds.

In another recent study, 73 and 67 percent of Turks have an unfavourable view of the European Union and NATO respectively. Bear also in mind that Turkey under Erdoğan’s iron fist is being de-Westernised at an accelerated pace, forcibly reversing the two-century-old trend, and leaving no room for any Western bond in the future.

De-Westernisation consists as well of ending the EU membership bid, which in turn cancels and supersedes the achievements of last 20 years in terms of good bilateral relations with EU member states. The bellicose rhetoric of the last years against some EU countries, EU politicians and citizens is a strong signal of Turkish centrifugal drive. With the EU perspective gone, all stakes are open for armed conflict.  

Fourth Recommendation: Do not dream of dealing with the Turkey of 1945. Do not fail to notice the total incapacity of Ankara to solve, let alone even understand the Kurdish quandary in the region as a whole. Do not try to preserve a decaying military/strategic relationship with the West in which Ankara appears more part of the problem than the solution. Do not bet on EU and/or NATO ties to ease tensions with neighbours, particularly Cyprus and Greece; quite the opposite, be ready for all options.     

As for patrolling the EU’s southeastern borders and the fate of the so-called refugee agreement of March 2016, one should note that the deal is about a temporary issue that will lose steam sooner or later with the end of Syrian civil war. Even if the out-of-control displacements of summer 2015 have now been checked, the movement of refugees and migrants continues at a slower pace towards Greece.

Although Ankara’s regular threats to “unleash the hordes” of refugees towards Europe is a cause for concern, there is not much one can do in terms of migration potential for all those stranded in Turkey without any future. Yet the migratory pressure will continue until genuine return and repatriation prospects come forward.

Fifth Recommendation: Stop considering the refugee/migration factor as the major negative assumption when you engage with Ankara.  

Within the same framework, the prosecution of captured jihadists is sub-contracted to authorities in the region, including Turkey. The likelihood that European ex-jihadists will be duly convicted is close to zero in Turkey, which was and still is their undeclared sponsor.  

Sixth Recommendation: Do not waste time by putting all your anti-terror eggs in the Turkish basket.

And finally succulent trade and engineering projects! It is clear that at the end of the day, cold economic interests will prevail and determine relations between Turkey and Western countries.

In 2016, Turkey was the EU’s 4th biggest export destination worth 78 billion euros and 5th largest import source, worth 66 billion euros. Many of these companies are European at both ends. All foreign companies enjoy the advantages of a relatively virgin market that is, in addition, void of rigorous labour, and fiscal and environmental regulations.

Although slower, business with Europe continues. The European Commission funds projects without proper environmental or strategic impact analysis and without auditing local sub-contractors’ illegal deeds on labour safety standards (e.g. Turkey is European champion of deadly work accidents). Everybody shamefully closes their eyes to the cash pouring into the country from unaccredited investors. Similarly the EIB, EBRD, World Bank and several international or national institutions are still joyfully financing governmental projects that often lack proper impact assessments.

Nevertheless utter vigilance is required.

First of all, the Erdoğan administration has accumulated economic mistakes over years, refrained from in-depth reforms and ended up by becoming dependent on high interest rates to continue to attract speculative capital in order to keep the economy afloat and fill the deficits. Lack of proper investment security, sky-high unemployment, limited growth based solely on infrastructure-energy-domestic consumption spending, weak R&D, a pathetic education system, lack of natural resources, low savings rate, an outdated fiscal system, drying foreign direct investment and now a severe brain-drain, all these structural problems make for an explosive cocktail. The Turkish economy is fundamentally unsustainable.

The snapshot at the beginning, of Italian CEO’s lining up for Erdoğan’s grand bazaar of mammoth projects is very telling. On February 13, the Italian government was considering the deployment of two navy vessels to Cyprus where the Italian giant ENI’s ship was drilling in the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone when it was blocked by a Turkish navy vessel.    

Seventh recommendation: Never forget that the whole rationale of Erdoğan’s regime is based on power politics, exactly like its role model Russia, ready to resort to blackmail, threats, muscle-flexing, lawlessness. Do not forget that modern economic governance is non-existent in Turkey where all decisions, at all levels, are taken by Erdoğan through unaccountable and non-transparent deals that sooner or later falter. Within this framework, do bear in mind that through the controversial “Istanbul Channel” project, those Italian companies, other big European engineering companies, would be involved in the making of a regional ecological catastrophe that would affect EU member states. Last, but not least, do not forget that every foreign economic deal cynically cut with the Turkish regime will end up strengthening Erdoğan’s rule inside as well as outside Turkey.