Europe risks double jeopardy with Turkey

The EU’s “High Representative”, Josep Borrell, has a thankless task. Like a latter day Don Quixote with a chamber pot on his head, Señor Borrell sets off to do battle with giants but ends up tilting with windmills and gets knocked off his horse.  

The first incident in this quixotic attempt to attempt a reset by EU standards was Borrell’s visit to Moscow three weeks ago. Here the head of the EU’s EEAS (European External Action Service) was definitely knocked off his horse. 

As Borrell concludes in his blog: “I went to Moscow this week to test, through principled diplomacy, whether the Russian government was interested in addressing differences and reversing the negative trend in our relations. The reaction I received points in a different direction.” An “aggressively staged” press conference and the expulsion of three EU diplomats indicated that Russia did not want to seize the opportunity to have “a more constructive dialogue” with the EU. 

The arrest and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny was very much at the centre of his visit, and Borrell’s call for Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release as well as a full and impartial investigation into his assassination attempt fell on deaf ears. Likewise a reminder to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia’s obligations in the field of human rights as a member of the Council of Europe.     

In conclusion, Borrell’s meeting with Lavrov and the messages sent by Russian authorities during the the visit confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart. It seemed to Borrell that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat. 

According to Borrell we are at a crossroads. The strategic choices we make now will determine international power dynamics in the 21st century, and whether we will advance towards more cooperative or more polarised models, based on closed or on freer societies. 

In view of the fact that the next giant to be tilted with is Turkey, this view is of principle importance. Under the tutelage of German chancellor Angela Merkel the EU has adopted a policy of “a constructive dialogue” and “a positive agenda” to deal with this confrontation with European values and standards.  

Driven by sheer economic necessity, or as I have earlier remarked, “cupboard love”, President Erdogan has vowed to “turn a new page” in Turkey’s relations with the EU and sees its future in Europe. The first step was the meeting between Josep Borrell and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu in Brussels for a frank and open discussion of the political process in Turkey and the prospects of “adhesion”. The meeting was intended to develop a cooperative and reciprocal relationship anchored in common values and principles.

But nary a word about the demand by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe for the release of Kurdish opposition party leader Selahattin Demirtaş and philanthropist Osman Kavala.     

Former EU ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini has in unequivocal terms taken issue with this “positive agenda” and states that blindly subscribing to Turkey’s charm offensive could constitute a misstep and an abdication of European values.

Judy Dempsey, editor-in-chief of Strategic Europe, has excoriated the EU’s inability to construct a more strategic foreign policy and its failure to follow French president Emmanuel Macron’s lead. As she concludes, “lame-duck” Chancellor Angela Merkel is no strategist. 

The German Marshall Fund recently held a webinar “in search of a positive agenda”, which resulted in a great deal of waffle but few concrete proposals. Croatian MEP, Željana Zovko, who is also chair of the EU-Turkey Forum, injected a note of realism when she stated that a few phone calls to Germany were not enough. Turkey has to “walk the talk” and demonstrate improvements with respect to civil society, journalists and the right to protest. 

Ms. Zovko also underlined the disconnect between the rarified stratosphere at the top of the Berlaymont building and the ground floor in the European Parliament: “The atmosphere towards Turkey in the European Parliament is a very bad one.”         

Following Borrell’s setback in Moscow, EU foreign ministers have agreed to impose limited sanctions (travel bans and asset freezes) against Russian officials. Now we await with bated breath President Erdoğan’s proposals for democratic and economic reform in Turkey. Likewise, ahead of the European Council meeting in March, Borrell and the Commission have been invited to submit a report concerning the EU-Turkey political, economic and trade relations and on instruments and options on how to proceed.      

In reality, events on the ground are taking a different turn. Turkey is now conducting massive naval exercises in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea, “Blue Homeland 2021” with the participation of 87 warships, 27 aircraft and 20 helicopters and drones.

At least 20,000 US troops, 145 helicopters and more than 1,800 armored vehicles are conducting a joint military exercise with Greece in western Thrace as part of the “Defender Europe 21” exercise in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, a tragicomedy in two acts, begins with a vagabond, Estragon, trying to take off his boot, but he gives up, exhausted. “Nothing to be done.” He is joined by a second vagabond, Vladimir, who says: “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle.” He broods, musing on the struggle, and turns to Estragon. “So there you are again.”