Macron vs Erdoğan: Keeping the dialogue with non-democracies?

So, President Macron of France invited President Erdoğan of Turkey to discuss business last Friday. What to think about this act of sheer realpolitik sugarcoated with Human Rights rhetoric? And, more broadly, about the leverage some Western democracies still pretend to have over today's burgeoning plethora of authoritarian regimes?

From Hungary and Poland to Russia and Turkey, from Egypt and Sudan to China and Pakistan, the unbearable lightness of the West’s “policy of dialogue” with dictatorships keeps us perplexed.

The Macron-Erdoğan bilateral talks rested right from the beginning on a false assumption. The French motto “maintenir le dialogue”, or the policy of keeping the dialogue alive with Erdoğan’s Turkey has given ammunitions to cynics who were busy to find excuses for the visit. “But he (Macron) will also bring up the dire situation of Human Rights in Turkey!” The Human Rights fig leaf has also given hopes to all those who are revolted by the massive violations currently taking place in Turkey.

Unfortunately, there is no such pre-condition to this dialogue, and there never was. The Turkish president has made it very clear in a recent TV interview prior to his Paris trip that he couldn’t care less about his counterpart bringing the issue of Human Rights up; what counts for him, he said, is the will of the Turkish people who elected him.

At the joint press conference he kept repeating his anathemas against anybody and everybody in Turkey and abroad who doesn’t think like him, labelling them as terrorists and putschists. Macron uttered that rights’ violations were raised during the “dialogue”, to which Erdoğan responded by dismissing all concerns. Indeed, nothing good will happen to those unjustly jailed writers and journalists following his Paris show.

As for the French party, the fact that the sole reasonable leverage is the EU membership of Turkey and that this perspective is stone dead, shows that the Human Rights talk is just empty rhetoric.

Actually, since 2015 the EU has been turning a blind eye to the skyrocketing Human Rights violations in Turkey. Neither the European Commission, nor the leading EU Member States have had the EU membership of Turkey in mind for a long time. Oddly enough, for them the massive violations in Turkey lead to a cheering result: As long as the Turkish president has abandoned the goal of making Turkey a member of the EU, the EU fully backs him whatever he does at home and happily collaborates with him. Be it business per se, refugee policing, fight against Islamic terror etc… Just like any other country, or any other autocracy.

Thus, once the misleading assumption of Human Rights’ advocacy is brushed aside, what remains is blunt realpolitik.

France is eyeing Turkish big-ticket purchases such as arms and aircrafts, as well as infrastructural projects that are the backbone of Turkish growth strategy for the coming decades, with a heavy dependence on imported technology. No matter that all these mammoth building projects lack any serious environmental impact analysis, or that the Turkish Treasury lacks the adequate financial means to develop them. All for the vested interests of French companies operating in Turkey… France was Turkey’s sixth trading partner both for imports and exports with a positive balance of €1.3 billion in 2016.

Then there were the French ISIS members who freely circulated between France and Syria through the “Turkish Highway” for years. Suddenly the regime started to act as if it was cooperating on this critical topic while continuing their “double-speak”. The policing of Turkey’s western borders according to the so-called EU-Turkey refugee deal of 16 March 2016 was also on the agenda.

But at the end of the day all these issues could have reasonably been dealt with by relevant ministries on both sides; it was the two Presidents who thought otherwise. And here lies the somber oddity.

Without getting something substantial in exchange, Macron offered Erdoğan the golden opportunity he was desperately looking for in order to legitimise himself in the eyes of his constituency as well as his Western partners, since the strange coup d’état of 15 July 2016, the controversial referendum for presidential if not dictatorial system of 16 April 2017, and the unspeakable deeds of his repressive regime. Exactly like any other autocratic dignitary happily paying a visit to Paris or other European capital city to enhance his image.

And Erdoğan got all he wanted! Those who would still think the EU membership prospects were rebuffed on this trip are having pipe dreams; he has done away with the EU perspective of Turkey long ago. Nor was he cornered on the matter of Human Rights violations, of which he remains resolutely proud…

So the question lingers: “How to behave with ever increasing autocracies, when the economic and strategic interests of Western industrial democracies outweigh democratic principles?”

Here the keyword is “appeasement”, towards which all Western democracies, either knowingly or out of cowardice, are deviating despite its disastrous results in the past.