As the EU's Erdoğan dilemma intensifies

In Ankara's growing kerfuffle of politics, the chief paradox is this: The more President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidates power around his person and constructs a regime in his orbit, the more unstable foreign policy becomes. There seems to be wide international consensus about this.

The president’s unpredictable behaviour has reached, since before the German elections in September, such a worrisome level that some commentators - like Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe or Steven Cook of Council of Foreign Relations in Washington – now talk about the 'roguery' of Turkey toward its Western allies.

The reason is obvious, within this paradox of power: Almost all of the components of Turkey’s domestic and international policy are being defined, presented and implemented on the basis of Erdoğan's own, and not Turkey's national interests. In the face of a flood of allegations of corruption and breaches of international law, Turkey's strong man is in trouble, and has known it all along.

The case of lorries allegedly carrying weapons to jihadists in Syria, which led to the legal harassment of journalists from Cumhuriyet newspaper, is still lurking. The arrest of a group of colleagues - including German journalist Deniz Yücel - in relation to the so-called 'Redhack' trial, which included leaks from the private email account of Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan's son-in-law, spreads further suspicion of corrupt practices with Erdogan’s full knowledge.

But it is a major organised-crime case beginning in the federal court of New York this month that best explains this paradox. The so-called 'Zarrab case' implicates not only an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, Reza Zarrab, known for his organic links to the Turkish president, but also a group of Turkish bankers and a former minister of Erdoğan's cabinet, Zafer Çağlayan. The trial, in which the defendants are accused of bypassing U.S. sanctions on Iran, is at the epicentre of all elements defining Turkey's - or, rather, Erdoğan's - foreign policy.

From the relentless bashing of Germany and the Netherlands last summer to what Erdoğan's critics call the 'hostage-taking of journalists and civil activists'; from the bloody brawl at the gates of the Turkish Embassy in Washington D.C. to the arrest of a staff member from the U.S. Mission in Ankara; all point exclusively to this trial, which apparently has developed into a nightmare for the Turkish president.

What baffled and misled many Turkey analysts in the past two years or so was merely a failure to read the Zarrab case, and to understand the personal logic of Erdoğan: He takes every criticism personally and, in times of open threats to his person, his family or 'his men', reflexively applies archaic counter-measures, defying the established codes of international diplomacy. It took a little time for observers of Turkey to understand that the 'lorries', 'Redhack' and 'Zarrab' cases are the major elements, and all else in Turkish politics is secondary.

The Zarrab trial, in particular, demonstrates how irrepressible the truth is, no matter how much one wants it to disappear. Erdoğan was very successful in burying the Zarrab case at home in 2014, step by step. He managed to 'convince' large swathes of Turkish society, with the help of a submissive media, that the allegations were an invention, a fiction of a group of Gülenist law enforcers and prosecutors. But the emergence of evidence in the U.S. justice system came as proof that his personally enforced narrative could not go beyond Turkey's borders, because the trial was the product of years of FBI investigation. This has become a nightmare for Erdoğan and led to Turkey’s perplexing 'de-anchoring' from NATO and the European Union.

It is as though an arsonist is on the loose and a group of firefighters are running after him, unable or too afraid to stop him. This brings us to another element of the paradox growing day-by-day: there is now a sense within the Turkish government that Erdoğan, through his minimally rational politics, be that domestically or internationally, is becoming a liability. The mixed messages coming from Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and several other ministers help explain that this perception has now become engrained in the top echelons of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). A widening gap between 'the Palace' –Erdoğan' and nearly 40 sycophant advisers - and the party leadership is becoming visible.

This realisation, never openly articulated but whispered in private conversations amongst the ruling party elites in Ankara and business circles in Istanbul, has also brought in to the frame those who were somewhat closer to Turkey's Western partners, who had noted the 'Erdoğan as a liability' dimension much earlier.

Yet, the question of establishing a consensus on a fact is one thing, but how the voting masses perceive a strong-willed leader is another. While it is true that Erdoğan can no longer rule Turkey without the current state of emergency, he is in control of two key aspects. Firstly, all state institutions, the judiciary, media and academia are under his personal control and, according to the polls, he is backed by between 38% and 49 % of the public, unchallenged by anyone. The only politician who could possibly rock the boat, the charismatic Kurdish leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, is being held indefinitely in prison. Cold logic tells us that in order not to lose power democratically, Erdoğan will keep holding all these tools in his hand. Secondly, with pure Machiavellian pragmatism, he has forged a new alliance with the Turkish state's militarist, anti-Kurdish, anti-Western 'old guard'. This only makes the future more bleak.

This deteriorating picture certainly adds to the dilemma within the EU. How to deal with Turkey? Although the dilemma seems more intense in the face of the 'Erdoğan factor', the answer is more simple: Turkey no longer fulfils the EU’s  Copenhagen Criteria for entry due to an immense political regression and there seems to be no quick fix to normalise relations, so long as Turkey's strongman remains in power with no democratic challenge in sight. All the EU, Washington and NATO can do is damage control.