In tactical turnaround, Erdoğan rediscovers ‘old friends’ in Europe

Just a few months ago, Turk­ish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan compared Euro­pean leaders to Nazis and condemned them as Islamo­phobes but when he recently talked about his EU colleagues, Erdoğan referred to them as his “old friends.”

Analysts said Erdoğan, a master of political tactics, is hoping for a rapprochement in ties with EU countries amid deep differences be­tween Turkey and the United States and a growing isolation of Turkey in the Middle East. The 63-year-old leader is also faced with challenges domestically as he prepares for cru­cial presidential, parliamentary and local elections in 2019.

In a series of bitter exchanges with EU leaders last year, Erdoğan accused Europeans of using “Nazi methods” and of stoking Islamo­phobia for populist reasons. Turk­ish prosecutors had several Ger­man and French citizens arrested. In response, German politicians spoke of “hostages” held by Ankara and took steps to limit government guarantees for investment in Tur­key by German companies. Several foreign inmates have been freed but others remain behind bars.

Turkey’s EU accession process had ground to a halt even before the latest tensions. There is no sched­ule for a resumption of membership talks.

Answering questions from Turk­ish media accompanying him on a foreign trip on December 27, howev­er, Erdoğan said he wanted to “de­crease the number of enemies and increase the number of friends,” adding he had no problems with Germany, the Netherlands or Bel­gium. He praised EU politicians for their criticism of the U.S. decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capi­tal, a move that was strongly con­demned by Turkey. “We are on the same page,” the Turkish president said.

Erdoğan met with French President Emmanuel Macron January 5 in Paris, the Turkish pres­ident’s first trip to France in two years. Erdogan said he might also visit Pope Francis. Ahead of a trip to Germany, Turkish Foreign Minis­ter Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu used a Jan. 1 interview with the German news agency DPA to say Turkey was ready to take two positive steps to­wards Berlin for every step taken by the German government.

Part of the reason behind the Turkish initiative is concern in An­kara that tensions with the Europe­an Union could hurt the economy in the run-up to the elections, said Selim Sazak, a Washington-based fellow of the Delma Institute think-tank based in Abu Dhabi.

“Europe, by and large, is Turkey’s main trading zone,” Sazak said via Twitter. “So, they need to shore up some credit among European investors. Otherwise, the already strained economy would likely break under pressure.”

The charm offensive does not mark a return to Turkey’s pro-Eu­ropean reform period of the last decade. Sazak and other analysts described the new Turkish position as “transactional.”

Ankara seeks political and eco­nomic rewards with the shift but could easily revert to its harsher ap­proach should the need arise, they point out. Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for De­fense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, and a former Turkish lawmaker, said it is significant that Turkey does not make a new start with the European Union as a whole but with individual members.

“In 2018, the Turkish government will continue to treat relations with EU member states as transactional, oscillating between hostile rhetoric and pragmatic outreach as required by the quotidian needs of Erdogan’s electoral campaign,” Erdemir wrote via e-mail.

In a sign of how quickly ties could sour, Erdogan, during a news con­ference with Macron, angrily dis­missed a question from a French reporter about suspected Turkish arms supplies to Syrian rebels. He also defended his government’s crackdown on journalists, saying some media workers encouraged terrorists. By contrast, Macron told Erdoğan that Turkey had to respect the rule of law and could not hope for progress in its EU accession talks.

Sazak said Erdoğan is also likely to seek a new agreement with the European Union on the refugee is­sue. Under a 2016 deal, Turkey is obliged to stop refugees from cross­ing from its territory to EU member Greece via the Aegean while the European Union pays Ankara bil­lions of dollars to care for approxi­mately 3 million Syrians in Turkey. The numbers of refugees arriving in Greece decreased significantly after the agreement went into force.

Erdoğan, however, is coming un­der increasing pressure at home as the cost for Turkey to feed and house the refugees climbs despite the EU payments, Sazak pointed out. “If Erdoğan could broker a ‘grand deal’ about refugees in the lead-up to the 2019 elections, that’s something he sorely needs,” he wrote.

Erdoğan said Turkey has spent about $30 billion on the refugees, a statement a new right-wing party in Turkey pounced on. Ümit Özdağ, a leader of the Good Party, which is challenging Erdoğan’s ruling Jus­tice and Development Party, said in November that one out of three Syrians in Turkey was overweight while 1.25 million Turks lived be­low the poverty level. Özdağ’s fig­ure came from Turkey’s Statistical Institute, which defines the pov­erty line for an individual as daily purchasing power of $4.30 or less and says 1.58% of Turks are below that line.

Sazak said the issue could put Erdoğan in a bind. “He’s spent $20+ billion in actual capital and a sig­nificant amount of political capi­tal,” Sazak wrote about the Turkish president. “He’s already squeezed tight. He’s not in a position to invest anymore — he simply doesn’t have the capital.”

Thomas Seibert is a reporter with the Arab Weekly, where this column is originally published.